By Liora Engel-Smith
Bridgette Diaz can’t use her cell phone without Wi-Fi. Her cellular carrier does not cover Robbinsville, the tiny mountain town where she has made her home. Diaz doesn’t have an internet connection either.
Robbinsville, the Graham County seat, is situated in a four-county pocket with some of the worst broadband adoption rates in the state. Residents like Diaz are used to finding workarounds, at least 47 percent of households in the county don’t have an internet connection.
Before the pandemic stay-at-home measures, that meant heading over to the library or the McDonald’s, Diaz said, but neither is available now. Diaz, who has a heart condition that puts her at high risk for complications from the novel virus, needs the internet now more than ever.
It isn’t just about connecting with family members who live far away. She uses the internet to meet with her doctor and manage her disability checks.
“It’s vitally important to my life,” she said.
In the post-COVID-19 world, where everything from work to doctor’s appointments to family gatherings has moved online, ensuring that everyone — including those who live in remote areas — can access the internet has gained new urgency. But with long-term rural infrastructure improvements still months or even years away, communities across the state are trying to come up with temporary, but faster-to-implement workarounds, from making Wi-Fi hotspots available to upgrading internet hookups in easy-to-reach public spaces. At least one project has also dabbled in a related goal of making telecounseling available for clients who may not have other options.
The race to connect people to broadband and associated services has gained an unlikely ally in some of these rural communities: churches.
A spirit of collaboration
In rural communities, where there aren’t as many nonprofits as in cities, churches remain a place for collaboration, innovation and community change, said Heather Kilbourne of the NC Rural Center.
“Rural churches are still at the center of their community,” she said. “… It’s a place where people come together.”
Those qualities make churches an ideal agent of change in a community, Kilbourne added. With that in mind, the NC Rural Center debuted Faith in Rural Communities at the end of last year. A collaboration with United Methodist churches in more sparsely populated communities, the program is sponsored by the Duke Endowment. Churches who participate learn to assess the most pressing needs in their community and create a program to address those needs. At the end of the nine-month cycle, the churches receive money to make the program a reality. The program is entering its second year, and organizers have made it a goal to work with 64 churches over five years.
But when coronavirus became a reality in North Carolina, the center offered past and current participants in the program emergency grants to address challenges brought on by the pandemic. A total of 10 churches received more than $27,000 collectively for such projects in May. Four organizations chose to focus on broadband access and related issues, from providing tablets for virtual learning, to distributing phone cards to people who need them.
A crisis and opportunity
Rev. Eric Reece of the Robbinsville United Methodist Church began pondering his community’s internet conundrum more deeply after the congregation had to move its gatherings online a couple of months back.
When Sunday services moved to Facebook Live, he said, the church’s internet connection wasn’t fast enough to support video, resulting in frozen screens. The church used an emergency grant from the Rural Center to upgrade its internet connection. The new hardware now sits in one of the pews, Reece said, but it’ll eventually be fixed to the ceiling.
With that strengthened infrastructure, Reece set up a couple of old computers at the church for residents who need to access the internet. Diaz is one of those residents. Every day, she comes to church to connect online, she said. The new setup also draws local children doing schoolwork and residents needing a reliable hookup for telehealth appointments.
The church has also used part of the grant to buy 14 hotspots and a year’s worth of prepaid connection for families to use. Graham County Schools staff is in the process of identifying and assigning these hotspots to families who are most in need.
“A crisis can be a threat or an opportunity,” he said.
Reece said he chose the latter.
Access to virtual health
In Davie County, another member church has focused on harnessing the power of broadband to bring counseling to families in need. Before schools closed, Smith Grove United Methodist Church had already tried its hand with a mental health intervention in local middle schools. Once the schools were closed, the suicide-prevention program came to a halt, but Rev. Darren L. Crotts said, students’ needs magnified.
“In some cases, that child, the only stable part of their lives is being at school every day,” he added. “They’re going to be facing not only being home together but all of the stress and anxieties around this (isolation).”
That led the church to roll out a virtual counseling program for students and their families. The church purchased a secure telehealth computer platform to enable these interactions and will waive most or all counseling fees if families aren’t able to pay for the service. The program is funded until the beginning of August, Crotts said, but the church is committed to finding additional funding to sustain it beyond that point.
For more information: To participate in Smith Grove United Methodist Church’s telecounseling program, call (313) 509-7168
Crotts said counseling will take place online, but if students and their families cannot access broadband, the church will set up access rooms with the technology required so families could see the counselor remotely.
“This is going to be the seeds that we’re gonna plant right now,” he said. “We’re going to develop this ministry long after COVID is gone.”
Disclosure: The Duke Endowment provides grant funding to NC Health News to cover children’s health issues.