RAISIN CITY -- When Juanita Mendoza was driving back from Los Ángeles through the Grapevine earlier this summer, a family friend called her cell phone asking her to participate in a free course that would teach her how to use computers and the Internet.
Juanita -- who didn't know how to turn on a computer -- decided to sign up, despite the intimidation she often felt from computers and new technology.
Seven weeks later, Mendoza can not only turn on a computer, but also go places on the Internet, and, to the dismay of her teenage children, she can e-mail their teachers to make sure they are turning in their homework, getting good grades "and staying out of trouble," she said.
The Raisin City mother of two teenage boys, 14 and 16, has worked as a medical secretary for more than 20 years. She has filled out paperwork, making phone calls and relaying messages to company colleagues. Not once has she touched a computer.
"I know how to be a secretary, but when it comes to computers, I am too afraid to go near them. I can't tell you how worried I am that I will do something wrong and it will just crash on me," said Mendoza, 50.
This summer, she and 15 other parents were the first in their community to sign up for free Internet courses offered as part of California's One Million New Internet Users (NIU) Initiative.
The initiative was launched on May 6 by several non-profit organizations in an effort to create awareness around the resources and opportunities that are available online and to help families set up Internet access points with their children's schools and other non-profit organizations where training can be conducted and the use of existing resources can be maximized.
Mendoza decided not to go to class alone on the first day. She convinced her younger brother, Lucas, 47 to join her.
"He is an expert in computers. Bringing him along was a great idea so he could help me if I get stuck somewhere in the process of learning. I also knew it would be good for him to come along so he could learn a few new things," said Mendoza.
When NIU was scouting for areas where families could gain the most out of the program, they turned to Raisin City, a farmworking community of 380 that is 100 percent Latino.
It is here many families don't have a computer, much less access to the Internet. NIU organizers thought the Central Valley would be a good place to launch the program. Raisin Unified School District Superintendent Juan Sandoval made the school library available for evening classes, where parents gathered three times a week for two-hours sessions.
A graduation ceremony was held last Friday.
"This is an unprecedented event for the Central Valley. Here we have parents who have worlds of opportunity just waiting to open up for them at their fingertips and yet, they don't know how to access it," said Larry Ortega, president and CEO of Community Union, a non-profit organization based in East Los Ángeles.
Ortega was instrumental in bringing the NIU program to Raisin City.
The program aims to teach parents how to use the computer, access the Internet, and use e-mail and Skype. Ortega said its important Latino parents learn computer basics then learn about the Internet so they can become aware of the resources available to them.
The parents' children, he said, are poised to benefit the most.
"It's imperative in this day and age that parents engage in their children's education and help them get to college. They are the future generations of this country and we are here to help facilitate that process by equipping them with the necessary knowledge, training and tools they need to help steer their children in the right direction," said Ortega.
Mendoza -- who is a single parent and whose teenage kids have expressed interest in college -- is often scared to tell them she is unable to afford paying their college tuition.
Now, Internet access has given her new hope and new opportunities.
"There are so many ways to get financial aid. I've learned that all my kids have to do is to perform well in school and make sure their grade point average is high so they can qualify for all the grants and scholarships that are out there," said Mendoza.
Raisin City school board president Vangie Urias said the most valuable aspect of the program for her has been seeing the self-esteem of the parents transform throughout each class session.
"You can literally see the confidence in their faces. I remember the first day they walked into class they had these looks of complete fear. They were so scared.
"They thought they would do something wrong if they touched the computer a certain way -- and many of them did -- but they learned in the process," said Urias. "Some of them have never touched a computer in their life and they believed that touching the screen would somehow shut down the entire computer, so the fact that they are now e-mailing one another and their children's teachers says a lot about how successful this program has been."
Each class is taught by two trainers who follow a 'parent engagement through technology' curriculum to teach them about Internet safety, how to keep their children away from drugs and violence and, most importantly, how to stay connected.
"Our gente is not online and that's a big problem. What we are doing with computers and the Internet is revolutionary because now parents are starting to skype with relatives that are back home in Guadalajara or in Los Ángeles or across the country in Chicago. Latino families are tight-knit communities and with Internet access, the Latino family is strengthened because they can now communicate with loved ones," said Ortega.
Jeanette Trejo, an 18-year-old classroom trainer, spent her summer training parents and assisting them when they make mistakes.
"It's been a great experience working with the parents. They ask tons of questions and they are very excited about e-mail the most because of its popularity. I have to admit, they are quick learners," said Trejo, who stayed extra hours along with lead instructor Neri Rivas until the last parent left.
"It's a classroom rule. We want the parents to be as comfortable as possible and learn as much as they can in the time they have, even if they have to spend extra time asking us questions or practicing their typing skills or just to play around on the computer to learn," said Rivas.
Urias says she already has 20 parents signed up for the next class at Raisin City and the NIU coalition expects to expand to Mendota and Parlier next year.