Computers connect military families

Inside a small conference room at Pelham Public Library sits two iMac computers that connect military families separated by active duty. Unfortunately, the computers have yet to fulfill their main purpose.

“We haven’t had one single person who’s actually used them yet,” said Barbara Roberts, library director.

Last December, the library received the computers from Connecting Families, a partnership between the Alabama Public Library Service and the Alabama Broadband Initiative that allows military families to see and talk to each other via Web conferencing.

Connecting Families is the brainchild of Chief Warrant Officer Rick Hickman, who was unable to communicate with his family in Elmore County while he served in Iraq. Rickman’s family had no Internet access.

The Alabama Public Library Service used leftover funds from a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to start Connecting Families. More than $180,000 has been spent to install Webcam-equipped computers at 107 libraries statewide.

Though the computers aren’t strictly for military families, they do have first priority, Roberts said.

Signing up is fast, free and easy. All one needs is an e-mail address and an account with Skype, a software program that allows telephone calls, instant messaging, file transfer and video conferencing over the Internet. Roberts said library aides are available to set up e-mail and Skype accounts for those interested.

Roberts said the time difference between Alabama and Iraq and Afghanistan might be the reason why Connecting Families has not caught on yet. Because military schedules are rigorous, scheduling quality time seems impossible.

“It’s very difficult for families to nail down specific times because the military person has to be at a computer at the same time the family member is trying to reach them,” Roberts said. “Some people are stationed in places so remote that they don’t have access to a computer.”

Roberts said the library is willing to arrange Web conferencing sessions after hours to accommodate families.

For more information, call Roberts at 620-6418.