‘Making Life Accessible to People’: Grand Rapids’ Sonja Forte is Helping Bridge The Digital Divide

AT&T Blog Team
May 2, 2024
Broadband Access and Affordability, Community Impact

‘Making Life Accessible to People’: Grand Rapids’ Sonja Forte is Helping Bridge The Digital Divide

When Sonja Forte arrived at Baxter Community Center in Grand Rapids as a part-time volunteer coordinator in 2012, it was just supposed to be a place to land while she figured out next steps.

Instead, Sonja found a work home – and a community – where she could really make a difference in people’s lives. The mission of Baxter – which is to meet the needs of residents through programs and services – matched Sonja’s servant background of always being involved in and giving back to the community.

In 2020, 8 years after she joined Baxter’s team, Sonja stepped into the role of executive director with a goal to connect with the community – just as COVID-19 shut down communities across Michigan.

The pandemic quickly demonstrated the importance of digital connection. It also starkly amplified the divide in the community between those who have access to the digital world, and those who do not.

“It became an absolute necessity for folks to have not only devices, but access to internet service,” Sonja said. “And that was a challenge for many because of affordability and accessibility issues.”

Many families served by Baxter were not connected to the internet because they simply could not afford their own laptop.

Enter AT&T.

Last fall, Baxter teamed up with the Michigan AT&T team to give away 100 free laptops to families, students, and seniors in need in the Grand Rapids community.

Sonja says the gift was a blessing. For one family, the new laptop allowed the mother with a serious medical condition to be able to enter her daily readings on the medical facility’s website to keep track of her condition. For her kids, it meant they could get online to do schoolwork.

“When we handed out the free laptops from AT&T, we heard a lot of people say to us – ‘you don’t know what this is going to mean for me,’” said Sonja. “And for families with kids, it’s huge. It will help make sure their kids can get online, do research, complete their homework, and succeed in the classroom.”

With AT&T’s help, Sonja and the Baxter team have also held digital literacy training sessions to help make sure community members know how to use technology.

“One of the things that is surprising is that we have a lot of folks who don’t have basic digital skills,” said Sonja. “They don’t know how to access emails, navigate websites, import links. And with our older Americans especially, this is a new way of communicating. We’ve been grateful to work with AT&T to help teach older Americans and our community members how to navigate – and be safe – in the digital world.”

For families facing life challenges due to poverty, Sonja says the devices from AT&T represent new doors of opportunities for the families they serve.

“These laptops are helping put access to the internet into people’s homes who need it most,” said Sonja. “It gives them a fair starting point. It’s making life accessible to people.”

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