Tabitha Gentry and Natalie Seabolt get the laptops ready for distribution. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
When 18-year-old Tabitha Gentry entered Tennessee’s foster care system last summer, she never imagined she’d be going to college or that someone would hand her a free laptop.
But now, Gentry is slated to start nursing classes at Northeast State Community College in the fall, and on Monday she and 60 other Northeast Tennessee young adults in the Department of Children’s Services custody, or those soon to exit custody, received a laptop.
It’s a program called Computers4Kids sponsored by Connected TN, a nonprofit organization with the mission of putting technology into the hands of all residents of Tennessee regardless of their income or geographic location, said Alyson Ferine, operations manager for the East Tennessee region.
“This year we’ll hand out our 5,000th laptop,” Ferine said. Connected TN has been able to run the laptop program from a three-year $2.3 million grant. She said it ends in July, but Connected TN is looking for other funding options to keep Computers4Kids going.
Gentry is also a part of the Youth Villages Transitional Living program, which is designed to help older teens and young adults transition into living independently and supporting themselves.
Natalie Seabolt, Independent Living Specialist for DCS, awarded Gentry with the first Excellence Award, because of the teen’s success since entering state custody.
“We have outstanding youth, but Tabitha showcases what outstanding means,” Seabolt said. “I feel like she is the true meaning of resilience. She has overcome many obstacles and she always has a smile on her face,” Seabolt said.
Gentry is luckier than some kids aging out of DCS custody. Her foster family took her and her three younger sisters in last summer, and said Gentry can continue to live there even though she’s already 18 years old.
Gentry said she has access to a computer at her foster family’s home, but the laptop is something she can call her own.
Kara Hamlin, also a Youth Villages Transitional Living participant, will attend Middle Tennessee State University to study nursing and plans to specialize in neonatal care. Amy Willingham, senior clinical supervisor for the Youth Villages program, said Hamlin will likely transfer to the program in Nashville while she attends school.
Willingham said Computers 4Kids has served dozens of Transitional Living young adults.
“Computers4Kids has provided the young adults we serve the opportunity to be connected to technology as they further their education. The majority of our young adults would not have had the opportunity to have such technology without Computers4Kids and the fabulous support from Natalie Seabolt and the Department of Children’s Services,” Willingham said.