Community lifelines: Hackney mother helps bridge the digital gap

Melissa Francis hugs her daughter, T’shaya, as her son T’quarn, dj’s on his smartphone in their livi

Melissa Francis hugs her daughter, T’shaya, as her son T’quarn, dj’s on his smartphone in their living room, September 18, 2020. After years of volunteering for several organisations in Hackney, Melissa started Bridge The Gap - Families In Need. The aim is to help low income families that require support, get access to the help available to them, and access to the internet. Melissa’s two children have Autism, and the difficulty she experienced accessing these services was her inspiration. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

A Hackney mother has been tackling the digital divide in her community by distributing digital devices to families in need.

Taryn Wint and Melissa Francis, who says she would "help every single soul" if she could, together set up Bridge The Gap - Families In Need during the first lockdown last year despite having never set up a grassroots organisation before.

“It threw me out of my comfort zone,” Melissa said.

But with help from resident-led project Our Place, Hackney Council and Hip, a forum for parents and carers of children with disabilities, her idea to give more families access to the internet got off the ground and found funding.

The mother-of-two says her experience living without internet just before the lockdown, struggling with slow mobile data, costly wifi-hotspots and dongles while her children grew anxious about school work, led her to speak to other families in similar situations.

Melissa Francis stands for a portrait at Clapton Ponds in Hackney, 11th August, 2020. Melissa recent

Melissa Francis by Clapton Ponds in Hackney, August 11, 2020. As well as helping families with digital devices, Melissa started a WhatsApp group that now has almost 100 participants. The group helps families access resources and information, such as discounted school uniforms and free online after-school tutoring for children. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

“It was just getting so frustrating and I was thinking, I wonder how other people are managing,” she told the Gazette.


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Although Melissa’s internet access problems were temporary and caused by moving house, she had learned about many residents affected by Hackney’s digital divide.

At first, Melissa tried to help people with her own money but was advised that with funding and a crowdfunder, the organisation could reach more people.

All the while the former community support worker was volunteering at other Hackney organisations, such as Children With Voices, The Feel Good Community and Connecting All Communities, and people were donating laptops, printers and phones as well as tins and other food items.

T’shaya Francis practices her football skills in the garden after school, 18th September, 2020. When

T’shaya Francis-Gordon, Melissa’s daughter, practices her football skills in the garden after school, September 18, 2020. Earlier in the year she helped raise money for her mothers organisation, Bridge The Gap - Families In Need, by selling homemade cupcakes on the street outside their home in Hackney. When she's older she wants to be a photographer or DJ. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

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But, she said: “I had to slow it down because it was a lot. I was going through a process of not getting any sleep just working around the clock non-stop."

Now the service “sticks” to offering digital devices and more recently a tutoring service to help children catch up on online learning.

But an “overwhelmed” Melissa says “the list is just increasing” with people from outside the borough contacting her for help.

For now, the service can only provide devices to families with children on free meals in Hackney, but she hopes to branch out to other areas in the future. 

To support Bridge The Gap, visit www.bridgethegaplondon.co.uk/donations

To get involved, visit www.bridgethegaplondon.co.uk/vacancies

The Hackney Gazette has teamed up with photographer Grey Hutton to tell the stories of organisations and people helping their communities during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

Andrew Gordon, a volunteer with Bridge The Gap - Families In Need, stands in the rain calling a fami

Andrew Gordon, a volunteer with Bridge The Gap - Families In Need, stands in the rain calling a family he’s delivering a laptop to, August 19, 2020. Andrew has extra time at the moment through lack of work and is helping Melissa’s organisation by delivering laptops to low income families across the borough. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

At the entrance to her apartment building, Shakayla Smith-Gayle proudly holds her new laptop deliver

At the entrance to her apartment building, Shakayla Smith-Gayle proudly holds her new laptop delivered to her by Andrew Gordon, a volunteer with Bridge The Gap - Families In Need, August 19, 2020. Before today there was only one laptop in the house and her older sister was using it mostly for school work, now Shakayla has her own. An Ofcom survey from January and March 2020 found that 9% of households with children in the UK did not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. Lockdown and school closures have put tremendous pressure on many families who have more children than digital devices, meaning Melissa’s work distributing laptops to families that need them is more important now than ever before. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

Andrew Gordon, a volunteer with Melissa’s organisation Bridge The Gap - Families in Need, delivers a

Andrew Gordon, a volunteer with Bridge The Gap - Families in Need, delivers a free laptop to Romulo and his daughter, August 18, 2020. So far, Bridge The Gap has been awarded almost £13,000 in grants, enabling them to help over 60 low-income families gain access to digital devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones. As well as grant money, Melissa also relies on donations from the public who’ve heard about her work. - Credit: Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

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