Taking aim at what its chairman called a digital divide, an Annapolis software company has donated 30 new computers to set up learning centers at three public housing communities in the state capital, giving underprivileged children a measure of online equality.
The gift by USinternetworking Inc. included printers, high-speed Internet access, software, volunteer instructors -- and a challenge to other businesses.
"I want to challenge every company in the city of Annapolis to do just one thing -- donate one computer to someone who doesn't have one to close this digital divide," USinternetworking Chairman Christopher R. McCleary said in ceremonies yesterday at the Eastport Terrace/Harbor House recreation center.
State, county and city officials attended the announcement to emphasize the significance of the donation by USinternetworking, an Internet application provider founded last year.
McCleary also said the company plans to donate five computers a month to residents of public housing communities over the next year -- and started yesterday by giving a computer, table, chair, software, Internet access and a prepaid phone line to five children selected by the Annapolis Housing Authority.
The Housing Authority also launched a Web site yesterday -- www.hacares.org -- where its residents can check e-mail, community news and events, learn about job opportunities, and arrange to post links to other favorite Internet sites.
One link was there yesterday, reflecting the push to get children online: the Web site of the children's cable television network, Nickelodeon. And future recipients of the free computers will be selected by the housing authority from those who regularly use the computer centers.
USinternetworking's $160,000 gesture follows similar gifts in recent years by the Gates Foundation to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library and a city recreation center. To a larger degree, computer donations have gone to schools -- with several supermarket chains following the lead of Giant Food and donating equipment to institutions chosen by customers.
Government agencies have pitched in -- although not necessarily with new equipment. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency donated 70 used computers to Baltimore schools.
In Annapolis, computer centers also have been set up in the communities of Robinwood and Bloomsbury Square.
Patricia Croslan, Annapolis Housing Authority executive director, said she plans to provide buses for children and adults in other public housing communities to get to the computer centers.
"We want to offer the opportunity for every person in public housing to be computer literate," Croslan said, "to be able to surf the Internet and access the information superhighway."
McCleary said employees of his company of 850 had been looking into charitable donations when Croslan approached him in July about starting the computer centers.
He said his company's first computer donation was to a Boys and Girls Club in Washington, where he and other company founders had walked by after a basketball game at the MCI Center last year and noticed it had only one old machine.
In making its civic presence known, USinternetworking also has put up donations for community causes -- $40,000 for Annapolis' July 4 fireworks, and $18,000 to pay the rent on City Dock space for next month's First Night New Year's Eve celebration.
Those who spoke yesterday urged public housing community residents to make the most of their new computers.
"To whom much is given, much is required," said Charles Mann, a former Washington Redskins de- fensive end invited to take part in the ceremony. "This, today, is your opportunity to make something of yourself, to set yourself apart. Take advantage of it and learn and then reach back and help others."
At least one cheering child in the crowd was taking Mann's words to heart by the time the dignitaries had stepped off the podium.
"I want to use it to do my homework and stuff," said 12-year-old Marvin Johnson, an Eastport Terrace resident who received a computer. "I also want to help my mother get a job."