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La Mirada Seniornet: The Product of Leon Kowitz

Whittier Presbyterian Hospital's volunteer Leon Kowitz has been a hospital volunteer since 1993 and has logged more than 16,000 hours.

Whittier Presbyterian Hospital’s volunteer Leon Kowitz has been a hospital volunteer since 1993 and has logged more than 16,000 hours.

By Daniela Kanz

Whittier Presbyterian Hospital’s volunteer Leon Kowitz has been a hospital volunteer since 1993 and has logged more than 16,000 hours. He told me the story of how La Mirada SeniorNet came to be. The hospital (now PIH Health) wanted to figure out how to get a learning center started. Nancy White (now retired) was in charge of Volunteer Services at the time and was responsible for forming the learning center. The hospital realized the necessity for seniors to have a place to learn computers, so they wanted to start a computer-learning center for the older folks.

Around November 2000, the hospital and the City of La Mirada came up with the idea that they could set up a joint learning center and asked Leon if he would visit with the people from National SeniorNet when they came for an informational meeting. The Activity Center was still under construction. The City of La Mirada agreed to provide the facility and PIH agreed to provide financial assistance. Early in 2001, Leon with others from La Mirada and Whittier met with the National SeniorNet representatives who were looking for a volunteer to run the center and asked Leon to be the coordinator. He seemed to have the most qualifications to be the coordinator. After discussing with his wife, Leon agreed to do it.

By June 2001, the facility was ready. Volunteers from PIH and local residents came to set up the classroom for anyone over 55 to take computer instruction. The rapid development of the classroom and coursework ensued. Leon commented how really good people took on the task and some of the original volunteers are still with the group (Dick Dickinson). Unfortunately, some of the original volunteers are now deceased. The initial meeting of workers determined the basic beginning curriculum by working through the manuals obtained from National SeniorNet. The manuals provided the instruction to the volunteers on how to conduct the classes. The hospital funded the purchase of eight Windows IBM computers from National SeniorNet. A little room upstairs in the Activity Center served as the first classroom. The volunteers conducted a dry run and by the end of the year, volunteers and senior students came to the first class.

Software and record keeping became another hurdle to achieve, but slowly the operation became smoother. It was a little like ‘the blind leading the blind. ’

Both the City of La Mirada and PIH advertised the Activity Center and the Computer Class. The first official computer class consisted of seven students, since the teacher needed the eighth computer for instruction. Little by little, they got better at delivering the content to the students. There were 120 people waiting to take classes and they could only accommodate seven. Good records were kept to ensure those on the wait list were contacted showing no preference as new class offerings occurred. It took about a year for a sense of comfort in their efforts. Training the volunteers to be teachers and coaches became the priority so that SeniorNet National would provide the next level of coursework. The reproduction of the manuals and reasonable pricing for the tuition charged to students became another accomplishment.

National SeniorNet provided assistance. Students and volunteers alike paid the National SeniorNet dues. Bill Sanders, who worked for a software company, was another instrumental initial helper. Mary List was one of the early administrators. She did not want to teach, but she was willing to keep records and things of that nature. As the students learned the computers, some became volunteers. Even the mayor, Lou Piltz, became one of the supportive volunteers. Vanessa Ivie was the coordinator of the Activity Center. She was learning as Leon was learning and was very helpful. She is now an executive at the hospital.

There were over 200 SeniorNet learning centers in California at the time with headquarters of National located in San Francisco. Management from various SeniorNet groups came for seminars to learn from the La Mirada Center.

Leon wrote a justification for the larger room now in use. It took approximately a year to acquire and install the computer tables, wiring, overhead projector, screen, three new high-speed printers, etc. The total cost was around $70M to $80M. The current facility has fourth generation computers thanks to PIH Health. The City of La Mirada contributed financially as well. There are currently 18 computers – 17 for students, one for the instructor. The capability of projecting the instructor’s computer screen onto the large screen for the students to view is a real asset.

As years passed, more and more classes evolved and students became instructors and coaches. The center has been in full operation offering selected computer courses since August of 2001 delivering training to over 3000 students by the beginning of 2015. The center has received awards from Los Angeles County and Leon and others attended Volunteer of the Year Dinners.

Leon stopped being active with the Learning Center in 2008 due to personal medical issues, although he remains on the volunteer list. The current coordinator is Bob Barreda who came to La Mirada SeniorNet in 2002. He and Linda Markstrom do a fine job in keeping Leon’s legacy on an even keel. There are currently 39 volunteers serving the La Mirada Learning Center with Marianne Cota as representative from the hospital.

Registration for the next session of classes is Friday morning, September 9th; from 9:30 to 11:30 at the La Mirada Activity Center, 13810 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada, California 90638 (second floor). For late registration, call 562-902-3177 and leave a message. A volunteer will return your call and arrange to register you if space is available

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