Computer teacher still helping senior citizens learn technology despite pandemic

CHICAGO — For years, Alex Bolanos has taught computer basics to senior citizens in a classroom setting. But last spring while transitioning to remote learning, he went above and beyond make sure his students were cared for both in and outside of the classroom.  

Alex Bolanos is one of Chicago’s Very Own.

Teaching a beginner computer class is hard enough, but Bolanos recalls doing it remotely is problematic.

“The big challenge was the students that knew nothing about computers they have zero knowledge of computers,” he said.

A computer literacy instructor with St. Josephs Services in Chicago, Bolanos has spent the last three years bringing his students up to speed with the use of modern technology. 

“I teach the most basic computer from the most basic, starting from hardware software, after that we going to learning about the internet,” he said.

He said the free classes have been a hit over the years, with more than 100 students enrolled at a time. But when the shutdown forced him to teach remotely, he discovered many of his seniors just weren’t prepared.     

“The issue is they had no hardware, no laptops no any kind of equipment, after they have equipment they don’t have the internet,” he said.

Many of his students are seniors and speak little English. Concerned the students would be without a lifeline to family and medical care during the shutdown he had to do something. Bolanos started accepting donated computers, had them refurbished, then delivered them to his students to use.    

“Some of them they have trouble to communicate with their families and they don’t have the sources, resources to connect them. So I try to help them,” he said.

And with their new hardware, Bolanos’ students are learning far more than ever before. They’re mastering email, Google Meets and Zoom meetings so they can speak with their loved ones.

Vicki McMannon, director of development at St. Joseph Services, said Bolanos’ class was wildly popular before COVID-19 hit. Students loved to have lunch with him, but he’s still taking care of them, and making sure they get through these uncertain times.

“He reaches out to them, he did wellness checks on them during the shutdown, the whole time, he genuinely likes them,” McMannon said.

Juan and Sophia Melchor have been taking Bolanos’ class for a few years. The pair have forged a special bond with their instructor and said he has helped them with doctor’s appointments, getting bus passes and internet connection.  

“I feel challenged,” Bolanos said. “They are senior, they need more help than the regular person”

Computer class still meets twice a week and Bolanos said his students are making progress.

“Now is my time to help,” he said. “I need to do something for them, somebody I have the opportunity to help this is my pleasure to do it.”

St. Joseph Services offers the computer literacy class for free, but they said due to Bolanos’ popularity there is a waiting list.