THE BLOG
04/08/2011 06:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2011

Just a Few Meters Can Make All the Difference

Today, I had the opportunity to get out and visit some of our partners in Chile. We started about 50 kilometers south of Santiago in the small town of Paine and the community of Pintue. A massive earthquake that struck this rural setting last February wrought terrible destruction. Almost half of all the structures were destroyed.

As with any earthquake there was little pattern to the destruction, homes fully upright are interspersed with empty lots -- the rubble has all been cleared. The school is still standing but the police station next door was completely destroyed. Between the two is a bright red container which is part of the ChileConect@Chile project undertaken by Fundacion de Vida Rural as part of their effort to bring connectivity to the affected communities following the earthquake. This organization has been setting up community technology centers in rural communities across Chile with Microsoft support since 2003.

Our visit started in the school computer lab where I spoke to the teacher and students. They are using the lab for learning but with limited connectivity they have to go next door to the 'container' if they need an Internet connection. The signal strength is weak due to the school being located just a few meters too far from the antenna across the road.

When I was there the center was fully occupied with kids, women and men using the computers to look up all sorts of information and resources, such as online government services. I had the opportunity to speak with a number of people in the center and heard two stories that provide a great illustration of the center's use.

Consuelo, a young woman who spoke English amazingly well given the fact that she taught herself, was searching the web to find information on bullying, which was on the rise in her community. She was very excited to talk with us and share her story. Consuelo is an aspiring writer and has written about her own challenging life experiences despite her young age.

Rebecca, a middle aged woman, makes artisan soap from natural vegetables and oils and sells them in the local market. She is looking to expand her business and wants to sell her soap online and in shops in Santiago through the help of government loans. She uses the Internet to find these opportunities.

The local police chief, whose staff also uses the center for online training online, summed up the impact of the ChileConect@Chile center: "this center has made us more cultural". After the earthquake this center gives them hope that with information they can rebuild their lives one meter at a time.

Our next stop was at Hogar de Christo, a major foundation that provides a comprehensive set of services to the most vulnerable in the country. They have programs set up across the country providing early education, elderly services to the homeless, hospice services to the mentally and physically disabled, microloans and entrepreneurial training. Started by the Jesuit priest Alberto Hurtadoin, the 1940s the organization serves more than 70,000 people directly.

What makes Hogar de Christo unique is that they have integrated IT into all of their services so that they can serve the most vulnerable in society in the most effective way. As I stated in my previous blog, their IT Director Marcelo Bahamonde has deployed Dynamics CRM to increase their effectiveness. He told me that nonprofits are great at getting their hands dirty to serve the community, and must become equally proficient in using technology to support that work. There is just no way around this.

As we walked around the complex and visited with people being supported by Hogar de Christo, the dignity, compassion and empathy of the caregivers became clear to me. I have never been received with such joy.

It was indeed a heartwarming visit. On my ride back to the airport -- where I am now writing this blog -- I kept thinking how just a few meters separate us from fully living our lives or being subjected to eternal struggle. How do we bridge this gap? Nonprofits try their best to do so -- but it's up to all of us. We must support and partner up with nonprofits, and bring our skills and resources to bear so we can all help make the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society more bearable, and hopefully more joyful. What I saw and experienced is that, if applied with a human touch, technology can make a major difference and does become the bridge.