Everyone’s Got to Start Somewhere

“PRC’s Next Step program is the best place for clients to get that first experience with the computer mouse, with the keys, with the screen, and gain at least these minimum skills. We’ll look after them, and we’ll keep them from running and screaming from the building in the process, or throwing the computer on the ground and stomping on it.”

So says PRC’s Computer Training Manager, Brian Whitford, a dedicated and longtime member of our workforce development team.

A native Californian, Brian has a thirst for adventure, one that led to his traveling the world after college working on a square rig sailing ship. In the early 1990’s Brian was diagnosed with HIV, prompting his decision to settle in the Bay Area.  In search of answers and assistance, Brian turned to PRC, known at that time as the AIDS Benefits Counselors (ABC), in its original Castro location. It was also around this time that Brian met his first husband, Arturo. Arturo was also diagnosed with HIV, and tragically lost his life to AIDS in 1995. Having suffered the loss of his husband while also navigating his own uncertain future, Brian relied on PRC to help him get back on his feet. His life experiences and firsthand knowledge of PRC’s services became a driving force behind Brian’s passion to help others. While working his way out of disability Brian studied web design and html training, then went on to teach that same class at the BAVC in the Mission, and then a similar course at Goodwill. In 2004, he started teaching PRC’s “Next Step” computer training program, which he’s managed for nearly seventeen years.

Next Step is a student’s first introduction or reintroduction to basic computer skills, preparing them to navigate the world of web-based apps, typing, email, online profiles, and common software operation. Over the course of one month, students attend eighteen days of three-hour computer trainings based on a state-approved curriculum. A new class begins each month with an average class size of twelve students, preparing one hundred-forty-four eager minds for the next phase of learning each year.

When Brian first started teaching Next Step, the main focus was teaching Microsoft Office and occupational skills training. Over the years the course has evolved to focus on Google’s suite of cloud-based workspace apps due to their ease of access. Brian shares that this limited scope has allowed him to become an expert at teaching basic computer skills to clients who have little or no computer knowledge, or are intimidated by technology. Because Brian has been teaching the same subject for so long, he’s developed a keen understanding of when to refine his methods to better fit each student’s individual needs.

“I like that I don’t have to be the big expert – I’m sort of the expert at teaching beginner level because I teach the same thing over and over.”

Brian has been known to lighten the mood on the first day of classes by saying “students, meet keyboard. Keyboard, meet students.” A simple joke, but when combined with his humble smile, it has a calming effect and lets the class know that Brian approaches his lessons with a sense of humor.  When asked about the goal of Next Step, he responds: 

“The main objective of the class is to meet individuals where they are and build upon that.  A lot of it is Psychology 101, as well as computer basics. Some students are quite vulnerable. You can talk to them and see that they are understanding, but it’s more important that they’re keeping up with the trainings and improving. It’s not just about the end test results. Most of my students are looking for work, while also coming out of recovery, depression, and various mental health challenges. A lot of it is just making the connection and getting them to come to class, which is no small task.”

When asked what part of the job is most rewarding, Brian doesn’t hesitate:

“The students and their personalities. We have a lot of humor and a lot of social energy to compensate for the soulless spreadsheets and software. When we’re in a group setting, it’s a mix of hands-on teaching lessons, and a support group. We relate through their goals and interests, and they are such sweet and interesting characters. Every once in a while a student will say thank you and to acknowledge their progresses, these moments really are golden.”

About the challenges of the job, Brian admits:

“There are many obstacles that prevent our students from getting to class on time. I have learned over the years that in spite of the many life challenges our students face, they do the best they can. But it takes a lot of patience, and a collaborative approach to the work to triage our interactions and offer services that are responsive to the students’ needs. As a team we make it work. Sometimes people stop attending classes midway through and but then return the next month—and we accept them back. This is what differentiates us from similar programs that require fulltime attendance. I wish we had more resources and more staff with similar skill sets as my colleagues Tomas and Jerry who have such a talent for calming our students’ self-doubts.

“Another challenge occurred during the pandemic when we had to pivot from in-person group trainings to individual home visits and virtual learning sessions. We used our food-related funds to buy computers for our students that they could take home with them, which was extremely beneficial.  We taught our students how to access email and navigate Zoom before we could start teaching them remotely and that was incredibly challenging since the class is designed to teach the basics of using a computer. Unreliable internet was also a challenge for many of the students, which disrupted their learning. Our folks already have so much working against them. But we work really hard to always get through challenges—it’s a lot!”

Once a student finishes the Next Step course, they receive a Certificate of Completion, and they can advance to PRC’s next offered course, “Step Up,” which teaches administrative and clerical skills for the workplace. Students then have the option to enroll in “Lift Up SF” a peer-to-peer training pathway that prepares participants with lived experience for jobs in community health settings. Through it all, students gain not only basic computer literacy, but confidence, a community, and a support system

Brian has helped thousands of PRC’s clients over the years to become comfortable using a computer. His main hope is that each student leaves his course better prepared to navigate the myriad of challenges that lie ahead in their pursuit of a better future. 

If you enjoyed reading about Brian and the Next Steps program, keep an eye out for future profiles of PRC staff and see client stories on our blog. You can also support this work by making a donation at prcsf.org/donate