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Black elders log on for computer fun, jobs

Rebecca S. Rivas | 4/11/2012, 8:24 a.m.

ST. LOUIS —The St. Louis Monsanto YMCA is a place where elders get up in the morning. It has the largest population of participating African American seniors of any YMCA in the country.

Walk into the gym and a 92-year-old African American woman is leading a chair aerobics class to a high-energy rhythm faster than you’ll hear in most regular aerobics classes. She doesn’t skip a beat. Walk into the coffee room and almost every seat has been taken by women playing cards or chatting about their classes. Among them is a water aerobics instructor — who is also in her 90s.

“We call this our country club,” said Mildred Boyd, 81, community organizer for the YMCA.

But at this country club, elders are learning new tricks — and sometimes those new skills are landing them jobs they need to supplement their Social Security.

Waiting list for classes

Among the biggest attractions at the “country club” are the computer classes for seniors, said Boyd, who coordinates the classes and leads some.

Boyd has a waiting list to get into the instructional sessions on Microsoft programs and the Internet, but information-hungry learners would rather watch and listen than wait for a regular slot to open up.

On a Friday morning this winter, Boyd looked at the 10 African American women, who stationed themselves at the computers — a few of them nearing 90.

“I’ll tell you something cute,” she said. “I came in this morning and read the roll, and I told them, ‘Not one of you is registered for this class.’ ”

As the registered students filtered in, the class crashers had to give up their seats and sit in chairs near the computers to follow along.

“We’re a big lab family,” Boyd said. “We’re not going to run anyone away.”

Octogenarian computer instructor

Boyd retired in 2001 from a career at MERS/Missouri Goodwill Industries where she facilitated job training and employment. But she didn’t stay retired for long. When she joined the YMCA as a retiree in 2002, they mentioned that they were looking for help with their Welfare-to-Work program.

“So I joined part of the employment team,” Boyd said with a laugh.

The seniors kept telling her that they wanted computer classes.

The Monsanto YMCA elders were not alone in their growing interest for computers. Computer use among Americans 65 and older has doubled in the past 10 years, while Internet usage among that age group has more than tripled, according to a 2010 Pew Internet Project report.

In 2004, Boyd asked the YMCA’s executive director if she could get a computer program started. However, soon after the program got up and going, the woman in charge of the classes — Boyd’s boss — left her position.

Boyd couldn’t let down the eager learners, so she held onto the classes by teaching them herself. Thankfully someone came to her rescue — a representative from the OASIS Institute, a national nonprofit that provides educational and volunteer opportunities to seniors. In 2011, nationwide enrollment in OASIS technology classes topped 7,700 in 90 locations.