By Sharon Gittleman
FERNDALE – Downtown Ferndale’s sleepy morning streetscape may soon get down to business. Medical students, writers and sales executives are sure to be just a few of the professionals hard at work inside the new Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center wifi coffee bar.
The 15 state-of-the-art flat screen computers in the bright cheerful cafe are guaranteed to attract a crowd, from executives to homemakers.
There may even be some onlookers pressing their faces against the glass frontage. The coffee house’s interior will be visible from the street.
“You’ll be able to watch out the window and see Ferndale walk by,” said Kathleen LaTosch, Affirmations’ Communications Director.
There’s plenty of space for you to use your own laptop at cafe tables and enjoy the free wireless Internet connection.
If you plan to hook up online after a shopping trip downtown, you can use the nearby lockers to stow your packages, purse, coat and other belongings.
“It’s a gathering space for folks,” said Affirmations’ Program Director Deanna Tocco. “It’s a place for people to come together, have a cup of coffee and have a meeting.”
Affirmations organizers have big plans for the space. They hope to offer classes in the coffee house designed to teach the ins and outs of different software programs and provide a computer-based General Education Development course, for people who want to earn the diploma equivalent.
“So many of our youths have to leave high school because it’s not safe,” she said. “We want to try to find ways to empower people in our community to get their education and increase their skills.”
Businesses can arrange to rent the computers for employee training programs, she said.
“We wanted to be able to offer another service to folks in the community,” Tocco said.
Affirmations’ computers were obtained through a $45,500 grant from the David Bohnett Foundation in Beverly Hills, California.
“We fund David Bohnett Cybercenters across the country,” said the foundation’s Executive Director Michael Fleming. “We have close to 45.”
Bohnett, a gay philanthropist and technology entrepreneur, began his road to fame and fortune in 1994, when he developed GeoCities, an Internet-based media and e-commerce company. He later sold his company to Yahoo.
His foundation’s mission is to improve society through social activism, including providing funding, technology and tech support to organizations like Affirmations.
So far, the foundation has given more than $3.5 million to non-profit groups that support the LGBT community and fight for equal rights for all.
“We try to build communities across the country through our fundraising,” said Fleming.
While national organizations may do good work, they are often focused on a particular issue, he said.
“The cybercenters have the broadest reach,” he said. “You have senior and youth groups meeting there. It’s not one segment of the LGBT community.”
Fleming said Affirmations won its grant because the organization clearly outlined the need for the equipment and computer-aided learning in the community.
“There are lots of people who do not have access to technology,” he said. “The goal is always to provide a safe space, whether to do research, chat in the chat room or google information about safer sex or breast cancer. That’s not easy to do in a cyber cafe with people looking over your shoulder. It’s impossible to do in a library.”
Wifi coffee houses, like the one Affirmations is opening, bolsters the LGBT community, he said.
“The point is to have a safe and inviting cybercenter for everyone who comes in the door,” he said.
That’s exactly what Youth Services Coordinator Laura Sorensen has in mind.
“We’re excited to use the cybercafe to offer a wide variety of programs to youth,” she said. “We’re going to be utilizing them for career skills and development work doing resumes, cover letters and job searching.”
A youth-staffed newsletter is another project in the planning stages.
“We have many talented writers, poets and authors,” she said. “They will be utilizing the cybercafe computers to put together the newsletter. It will be a great way to get youth voices to the community.”
Youngsters will also be able to use the computers as a homework aid, she said.
Sorensen plans to be a regular coffee house visitor.
“I can’t wait to bring my laptop out,” she said.
Cafe workers will be doing more than pouring cups of coffee and selling treats made by Pronto! restaurant in Royal Oak.
Cyber staff will be available to help people sign on, answer computer questions and share their expertise, said Tocco.
“We may be able to offer online classes for people,” she said. “There’s endless possibilities. There’s room for a lot of collaboration and growth.”
There will be a small fee for computer time at the wifi cafe. Center members can use them for free.
The wifi coffee bar will be open during regular center hours, from 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Mon. – Wed., 9 a.m. – 11 p.m., on Thurs., and 9 a.m. – midnight on Fri. and Sat.