New “Unlimited Potential” Giving Program Focuses on Aid to Organizations that Support “Life-Long Learning” Opportunities for Underserved Communities

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 4, 2003 — The Silicon Valley cities of Menlo Park and Palo Alto, Calif. are two of the most affluent communities in America, with average home prices well over US$700,000. But across Highway 101, in the neighborhood of East Menlo Park and the nearby city of East Palo Alto, the economic picture isn’t as prosperous. In these areas, industrial pollution has caused ongoing health concerns for residents, the area’s unemployment rate is twice as high as the region’s average and local public schools have suffered as well. Since the 1980s, East Palo Alto hasn’t had a public high school, forcing local teens to be bussed several miles for their education, and leading to high drop-out rates.

In 1965, the non-profit agency Opportunities Industrialization Center West (OICW) began working to improve the economic climate in the East Palo Alto/Menlo Park. For the past 38 years, the agency has helped to improve life for many residents by providing training and job placement in a variety of disciplines. Last year, OICW trained over 6,000 people, and placed 71 percent of its full-time vocational training graduates in well-paying jobs.

Because of its commitment to helping area residents in need succeed by offering vocational training opportunities, OICW is one of 82 grant recipients announced by Microsoft today, under a new giving program called Unlimited Potential (UP).

Microsoft UP is a global initiative focused on supporting community-based technology and learning centers (CTLCs) that provide technology skills training for disadvantaged individuals. The first round of grants awarded by the new program total $8.1 million: $4.5 million in cash and more than $3.6 million in software. Microsoft plans to commit more than $1 billion to the initiative over the next five years.

UP will initially provide funding to help CTLCs hire and train technology instructors. Subsequent phases of the initiative will offer an online global support network delivering technology curriculum, research, tools and help-desk services to CTLCs worldwide. UP will also sponsor a global and regional awards program, which will invest in technology solutions that deliver a social benefit. The awards are designed to encourage innovation and provide funding necessary to help the best technology solutions scale for broader use.

The OICW received $75,000 in cash and software valued at $85,000.

“OICW is an excellent example of the kind of organization Microsoft wants to help support,” says Pamela Passman, head of Microsoft’s Corporate Affairs. “The training and education they offer provide people in need with a chance to develop new skills and expand their career opportunities in today’s knowledge-driven economy.”

Amanda Byrd, development director of OICW, says the Microsoft UP grant will go to support the group’s Technology Training Center, which prepares workers for a variety of disciplines requiring technological skills. “The Technology Center is a busy, busy space,” says Byrd. “We try to cover the gamut in what we do well, and train in fields like construction, certified nursing assistant and health-care-related classes.”

For several years, OICW received much of its funding from the Workforce Investment Act, federal funds allocated to OICW through the government of San Mateo County, California. But in recent years, those dollars have been shrinking. OICW used to receive about $1 million each year in federal funding, but that’s gone down dramatically.

The OICW Technology Center Classroom offers technology training to high school students and adults that focuses on basic computer training and proficiency using computers in businesses. “It’s such a good field to be training in because so many companies need someone with administrative skills,” says Byrd.

The OICW Technology Center offers classes through three programs:

  • Full-time training: Adult, daytime training classes that teach basic office administrative skills and offer Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification.

  • School After School for Successful Youth (SASSY): An after-school program for high school students, teaching everything from basic typing to becoming specialists in using the Microsoft Office System.

  • Evening programs: A program for adults with low-income jobs, providing training in basic computer use and using business applications.

“Software donations and financial support are absolutely key, not just in the Office skills but in all of our programs to keep up with technology, because it’s the only way we can help our students prevail in this market,” says Byrd.”

Many classes at OICW are free of charge. The goal, says Byrd, is to help those most in need succeed. Many in the program were until recently on welfare, or in prison or drug-treatment programs. “As the economy has changed in recent years, more and more we have seen these programs broaden,” says Byrd.

The evening classes, which charge a nominal fee of $30-$40 for an eight-week program to encourage retention, focus on helping people already employed with low-income jobs learn new skills to find better opportunities for themselves. Privately funded grants are key to supporting such students, Byrd says. “We have a limited amount of government funding that carries specific requirements about who gets it. But about 60 percent of our funding is from private sources, and that allows us to be a lot more flexible.” If someone doesn’t meet the specific eligibility requirements mandated by the government funds, OICW can still serve them.

“If there are people who want to be here but are not what you’d consider traditionally in need, we can still help them,” says Byrd. “More and more, we’re serving people that had good careers but have been unemployed for months, even years, and lost their housing and their savings.”

OICW also provides local students with a place in their community to do schoolwork, as well as learn skills to help them in their education and prepare for the workforce. “Many of our kids get bussed to high schools in the peninsula, and face tough academic conditions and acclimation issues, and don’t have resources and support at home to succeed in such tough conditions,” says Byrd.

For OICW students, Byrd says developing a level of technical literacy is key to their success. “We are always upgrading the training, and the software will help us stay on the cutting edge,” says Byrd. “The Microsoft UP grant is helping to ensure that we can keep on training in ways that really do change our students’ lives.”

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