After 30-odd years of living in government-subsidized housing, Michelle Robinson is learning to check e-mail and job-hunt online with help from Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
At first it was [really hard], but Im getting kind of comfortable with it, the 44-year-old grandmother said, sitting at a table inside ARHAs Ruby Tucker Family Center. I didnt know nothing about computers until I started coming here I thought I could learn something and find a job online.
From the keyboard to the kitchen, ARHA wants to give residents the tools to help them improve their lives, said Sandra Fowler, agency spokeswoman. They can take exercise classes, job training courses and even learn how to garden.
For children, ARHA schedules after-school tutoring, mentoring, homework help and field trips in and outside of Alexandria. Theyve partnered with other city agencies and organizations to offer activities as diverse as sailing and equestrian lessons.
Were connecting with our residents in a different way, said Roy Priest, ARHAs chief executive officer. We hope to expose people to enough things to show them there is an advantage to improving their lives.
While Priest measures the success of these new programs with the upswing of community involvement among residents, there are quantifiable improvements. The Ruby Tucker Family Center is a little more than a year old but the number of work orders for ARHAs 30 properties has decreased by 54 percent since 2004 and is on course to decline again this year.
And in October alone, 13 ARHA residents found jobs through the agencys computer lab, according to Fowler. About 47 percent of their tenants hold down jobs, from full-time to seasonal, she said.
Nisa Harper, a 36-year-old mother of three, found out about the agencys offerings after attending a residents meeting. Now she searches for work on the centers computers and sends her children to their after-school programs or field trips, like a recent jaunt to Washingtons Spy Museum.
But not all of her neighbors are so easily convinced to join in. If theres a critique of ARHAs program, its that word has not reached every resident. Its a problem of outreach and old habits dying hard, Harper said.
While Im here, Im going to take advantage of the opportunities, Harper said. If you dont see a future for yourself youll sit around and wait, but if you see what you want, youll go out and get it.
Though many residents dont attend community meetings or take up classes at the center, Harper believes ARHA is trying. She has a college degree, but grew up in the projects and knows the difference first-hand.
You could see it as us against them, but it doesnt seem that way, Harper said. It appears different. Theyre looking to engage the community and it only betters Alexandria.
Fowler sees ever more residents interested in improving their situation. Theyre hungry for the opportunity, Fowler said.
More parents are wanting to get their GED, taking our classes and wanting to learn and get off the dole and transition, she said.
Thats true for Robinson, in her sixth year of unemployment. Shes eyeing the centers GED prep program next, now that shes got computer basics down. Not getting a degree is one of her biggest life regrets, she said.
I didnt graduate and I wish I had. Its hard when youve got no diploma, no college experience, Robinson said. Every event they have Im here. The GED program just started Im going to try to get into those classes next.