Linking city to cyberspace Project: Hopkins student Vivek Baluja had a vision of bringing computer literacy to needy urban neighborhoods. His goal was attained at one recreation center

now he seeks to spread the idea.

December 18, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

He uses words like "chill" and "dude" just like any other junior at the Johns Hopkins University, but Vivek Baluja did something yesterday that no other Hopkins' student -- or anyone else for that matter -- has done before: welcome Microsoft to a city recreation center to show off a shining new computer room.

William H. Gates, father of Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and head of the Gates Foundation, came to Baltimore to meet Baluja months after the student struck up a correspondence with father and son via e-mail. Baluja had made a modest proposal: that the Gates Foundation contribute to installing more than a dozen computers at the recreation center in the 2300 block of Greenmount Ave.

When the two came face-to-face yesterday, the soft-spoken Baluja took the towering Gates by the arm as if they were already friends. Then Baluja proudly showed Gates the results he had orchestrated with help from professors, friends and charitable groups, including Gates': a small yellow computer room freshly wired from the inner city into cyberspace.

This room began in his imagination a year ago when he was a volunteer tutor and it dawned on him that, as he put it last week: "Computer literacy used to be an advantage. Now it's a necessity."

But yesterday was just a start, Baluja told Gates.

Then he presented his bigger dream to the man who holds the purse strings of the Gates Foundation's charitable giving: using the computer room as a prototype for the other 46 recreation centers in the city, then taking the model to other U.S. cities.

"Everybody was happy," said Leu Beach, a teacher of Baluja's who was an adviser to the project. Gates did not make a commitment during the visit to expand the program. The foundation has $186 million in assets, and the younger Gates, founder of Microsoft, has come under some criticism for not donating more of his fortune to charitable causes.

"Vivek's vision is, do it everywhere," Beach said.

For Baluja, first came the realization that the children he was tutoring would be locked out of the 21st century job market if they didn't know the first thing about computers.

"It's more than giving them a chance," he said of bringing computers into the daily lives of youths in the Waverly and Barclay neighborhoods. "It's teaching them how to make chances for themselves, giving them a skill they need."

Then there was an epiphany when he said to himself, "Well, why don't you do something about it?" So, he said, he went around asking for old and discarded computers from the Hopkins campus and the affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute.

When he told his mentor about the plan, Beach shook his head and said that giving the youths "our trash" wasn't a good message.

"With underprivileged kids, it's nice to give them something new," said Charlene Ames, president of the East Baltimore Midway neighborhood organization. The concept of equipping a computer room at the recreation center soon became a goal set by the Greater Homewood Renaissance plan for improving North Baltimore neighborhoods.

Baluja went at the task of asking people in high places for money -- by e-mail, by telephone, by riding elevators at Kennedy-Krieger and seeking advice from, among others, Dr. Hugo Moser, former head of the institute.

After Moser advised him to contact local philanthropies, Baluja pitched his idea to the Abell Foundation and the Enterprise Foundation, which gave $40,000 and $70,000, respectively.

"As a society, we have to offer that opportunity or we will leave a lot of people behind," said Bart Harvey, chief executive officer of the Enterprise Foundation.

The Gates Foundation agreed to donate $40,000 and nearly $60,000 worth of the latest Microsoft software.

A computer room in the Greenmount Recreation Center started to take shape.

The center director, Edward Banks, said, "Adults will become computer-literate too. This will upgrade the whole area."

In notes, Baluja said, the younger Gates has peppered him with questions about replicating the model in other urban communities.

"The whole gist of our conversations was, do it again and again, until you reach every sector of America," Baluja said.

"He [Gates] started with a dream in college," he said. "No one believed him."

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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