David "DJ" Madden is not thinking about networks right now, nor about reading or math. He's busy using one of PowerUP's Gateways to piece together a recording on a hip-hop site named hookt.com. DJ takes snippets of music available on the site and patches them into the order he wants. He then plays back his composition over speakers, loudly enough for James Beaner, site supervisor for PowerUP, to throw a frown his way.
DJ, who is now 14, says he has wanted to make music since he was five years old. Back then, he says, his older brother was "into old-school rap" and used various electronic instruments to compose his own songs. Until now, however, DJ has never had a chance to make music himself. Though he only began to come to the community center three months ago, DJ already has a new goal in life, he says, which is to win a Grammy award.
Beaner says one of the biggest benefits of having the computers in a community center is that it is indeed a community, and the kids get a chance to work side by side on their computers. DJ, for instance, gets immediate feedback from an audience that he would never have at home. In turn, Beaner says, DJ sometimes takes the time to lean over and help the younger kids.
Another big benefit is the sense of security in the community center, Beaner says. There is more supervision here than even in many after-school programs. And unlike school-based efforts, the kids don't have to make their way home after dark.
Kevin Robinson, for one, wants more from the PowerUP-funded community center. Not so long ago, he didn't even dare dream about having access to a computer right in his apartment building. In fact, Kevin has to think a moment when asked if he knows anyone who owns a computer at home. "Yes," he finally says. "My brother's friend's father has one. It's really beautiful."
Kevin's big wish now, he says, is that the community center would "stay open later, like till 9. And that it stay open on Saturdays." In a neighborhood that is separated from the rest of Washington - and America - by much more than a river, Kevin and his friends are finally starting to feel connected.