Oceanside Family Success Center had a near-immediate connection with the community when they opened in Atlantic City about five years ago.
But when the pandemic closed things down, many wondered what would happen to the place they had come to depend upon to engage entire families.
“I can’t even tell you how many phone calls we received,” said Kia Jones, program supervisor for Oceanside’s Uptown location. “’When are you guys opening?’ ‘What’s happening with programming?’”
That’s when the Atlantic City native started brainstorming, looking for ways to work around the closures.
That can be especially difficult for places like Atlantic City, where many families can’t afford the technology that more affluent areas may take for granted.
The 2019 census found that a third of homes did not have a broadband internet subscription and more than 22 percent did not have a computer.
This digital divide can be difficult to overcome. But Jones said she’s passionate about finding solutions to these issues.
“I get to see what the need is in the community and am able to reach out to our partners to see if it’s something we can improve on,” she said.
It started with free paint sessions online.
“A lot of parents said that the kids loved it, that it was something they can do together, which is something we encourage for all our workshops,” Jones said.
The lessons soon went virtual, adding in things like scavenger hunts, with parents still engaged only from home rather than in a community setting.
“With going virtual we wanted to make this as normal as possible so with every paint session we supply enough paint, brushes and canvas for each family member that wants to participate and arrange for them to pick them up at the center,” Jones said.
Instructor Lotoya Maraj made the sessions comfortable and gave families the extra time they needed in a virtual setting, Jones said.
More virtual offerings were soon added, including things like scavenger hunts, with parents still engaged only from home rather than in a community setting. Oceanside would soon learn their efforts were being noticed outside Atlantic City.
“Microsoft’s on the phone,” a staff member told Jones one day just before the summer.
“I originally thought they were just calling to say that they’re coming to install something on our computers,” she said.
Instead, it was an offer to team up.
“We heard about the excellent things that you guys are doing, and we want to see how we can partner,” Jones was told.
“It was definitely like a ‘wow’ moment,” she said.
“I think what they saw is our ability to connect with the community,” said Cari Burke, program director for several Family Success Centers.
Meetings followed to help design a program that fit with the community and would interest the children.
The result was four coding sessions that incorporated things kids already love, like Minecraft and superheroes.
Aliyah Cherrisse had been Googling free coding classes for her son when Oceanside popped up on her Facebook feed.
“I wanted him to engage more in something that he really wanted to do,” Cherrisse said of 12-year-old David Briggs III.
He wants to be a technical engineer and loves playing video games, so his mom figured it was a perfect match.
Cherrisse wasn’t familiar with the Family Success Center, but quickly jumped at the opportunity.
“I was excited because those programs can be expensive,” said the single mom of three. “I was getting a little stressed that I might have to deny him the opportunity.”
Thanks to the Oceanside-Microsoft partnership, that wasn’t an issue.
“I liked it because I was able to ask questions,” David said. “I wasn’t just trying to figure it out by myself.”
Step-by-step, David learned to create a game, and then was able to change the name and characters.
He said he would definitely take another coding class, and would help his 5-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister learn if they become interested.
“My 5-year-old probably will do it seeing his older brother doing it,” Cherrisse said.
There will be more opportunities, Jones said.
A summer program will have a Space Jam theme.
“The good thing is (students) can do it on their phone, tablet or computer,” Jones said. “Whatever wave of technology they have.”
It’s a way to help Atlantic City’s students bridge that digital divide.
“I hope more people take advantage of it, introducing our children to something different,” Cherrisse said. “(Technology and coding) is the new way of the world. It’s great if we could start building up our own backyard to be prepared to step into that position.”
Microsoft is fully on board, Jones said.
Those who have been attending Oceanside weren’t surprised that it garnered positive attention.
“They always have something that’s interesting and fulfilling,” said Marlina Abdullah, who discovered the Family Success Center while looking for new things to do with her granddaughter when she watches her on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It started with a sign language course. But once they saw the calendar of events, the pair became regulars.
“You had a 66-year-old and a 10-year-old both looking forward to going every Thursday,” Indra Owens said of her mother and daughter.
Oceanside connects with the community because many who work at the two locations are part of it, Burke noted.
“That’s important when we identify people to bring on board,” she said. “Are they from the area? Are they familiar? Do they have that kind of connection?”
Jones, 38, grew up in Pitney Village and Stanley Holmes, and is a Stockton University graduate.
“If you have that connection, it makes the work that you’re doing that much more, you know?” Burke said. “It hits closer to home. I want to make sure that this community that I live in and work in thrives and is succeeding.”
With Oceanside, that’s working, said Owens, an experienced educator, guidance counselor and mentor.
“It’s really giving the population more options,” she said.
“Even when I was a teacher, I would always tell kids, it’s not necessarily about money,” Owens continued. “The fact you have options is what makes you successful … having the resources.”
With Microsoft, those resources have increased.
“Technology is not going anywhere, and it’s changing and getting more advanced day by day,” Jones said.
Having a company like Microsoft “means a great deal not just to the kids but also the parents,” she added. “Helping people and empowering others goes hand in hand.”