Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat representing North Carolina's 1st Congressional District, speaks with HUD Secretary Julian Castro on Tuesday.
Bill Howard | Special to the Times
Julian Castro, U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, applauds the city of Wilson's initiative in offering low-cost internet access through the Greenlight broadband network to residents in Wilson public housing communities.
Bill Howard | Special to the Times
By Olivia Neeley
Times Staff Writer
Thirteen-year-old Christopher Richardson doesn’t have internet access at home. The Forest Hills Middle student uses the internet at a community center for free to complete his homework online. His mother, who is working to secure him and his brother a better future by attending school herself, can’t afford it.
But that is about to change for Christopher and his family.
During National Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s visit to Wilson Tuesday, the city announced a new partnership with the Wilson Housing Authority to provide affordable Greenlight broadband service to public housing residents.
“This program is very good because it is allowing us to do our homework at home,” Christopher told a crowd of leaders, community members and Castro at the secretary’s final stop at the Freeman Roundhouse. “That’s why it will be good for this program to go forward for young females and males to have a brighter future.”
Castro, along with city and community leaders, spent the afternoon touring Wilson and various HUD investment sites here. Castro traveled through neighborhoods, looking at the WHA’s newest and oldest properties as well as other investments within the city.
His first stop was Pinnacle Point, a senior apartment building on Starmount Circle, as well St. John Community Development Corp.’s Save-A-Youth Center on Walnut Street in the Whitfield Housing section.
Tuesday’s tour ended at the Freeman Roundhouse where dozens gathered for a special program for the public.
“Wilson is more than a city with a vibrant past,” Castro said. “It is also a community that is doing great things today and a community with a great future. It’s a city that’s investing in the education of its youth, providing ladders of opportunity for their parents.”
Castro said the internet touches every single human being in our nation in one way or another. And, he said, it’s amazing how technology has affected people’s lives. He said children who have access to the internet can get help with homework and research assignments.
“Teenagers can apply for a job or college online,” Castro continued. “Their parents can apply for jobs on the internet or start their own businesses or connect with customers. We know these days that the internet is not a luxury, access to it is really a necessity in this 21st-century global economy. And we want to make sure every single child in our nation has access to it.”
Castro said fortunately, Wilson’s leaders decided how much a family has or doesn’t have shouldn’t determine whether they have access to the internet.
Castro said Wilson’s initiative resembles HUD’s visionary pilot program, ConnectHome, which connects affordable and public housing communities nationwide to the internet.
“Our goal is that every single public housing resident have access to the internet,” Castro said. “I know ConnectHome helped inspire some of the partnerships and the announcement today.”
‘BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE’
While the announcement is a typical bulk customer agreement for Greenlight, nationally it is of major significance because many private telecom companies are not currently offering similar agreements, city officials said.
“One of Greenlight’s core principles is to enhance the quality of life for all residents, making high-speed internet available for everyone,” City Manager Grant Goings said during the announcement Tuesday. “It’s an important step in bridging the digital divide. And it’s something we work toward every day. Wilson is a community charging forward despite challenges.”
And Castro said he was amazed to hear about the fiber-optic network in Wilson. He said it was a “powerful tool” and hopes Wilson will expand well into the future.
MORE THAN CHANGING LIVES
Kelly Vick, WHA president and chief executive officer, highlighted several programs including the housing authority’s partnership with local agencies to end homelessness in Wilson.
In the past year, WHA has provided permanent housing through its Housing Choice Voucher program and provided public housing units to 70 families who were once homeless.
Iris Batts, who is one of those the programs has helped lift out of homelessness, was overwhelmed with joy when leaders, including Castro, acknowledged her and others in the program Tuesday.
“I was homeless for a period of time,” she told the crowd. “I just needed an opportunity to rebuild and get back on my feet.”
Batts moved into her new home nearly six months ago.
“I’m so thankful,” she said.
Other WHA initiatives highlighted for Castro included the family self-sufficiency and homeownership programs.
Castro said Wilson also answered President Barack Obama’s call to tackle the homelessness crisis in the nation.
“It’s communities like Wilson who are leading the way,” he said. “Those stories of personal triumph were possible because Wilson is a community that is committed to not leaving anybody behind.”
Castro also thanked Vick’s leadership and the team at WHA for all that they are doing to improve the lives of those who need someone in their corner the most, he said.
“You are doing more than changing lives,” he said. “You are helping to change the trajectory for an entire generation for folks in this community.”
He also thanked Mayor Bruce Rose for his efforts in helping people in Wilson.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who initiated Castro’s visit, also spoke during Tuesday’s ceremony. He said the city of Wilson has done tremendous work over the years in helping families access economic opportunity.
“We are headed in the right direction and headed on the right track,” he said.
Butterfield called Vick a dynamic leader for the WHA. He also said Vick — along with the WHA board — has a vision.
“If we would just buy into their vision and support them in their work, you are going to see Wilson greatly improved …” he said.
And broadband access is a big deal, Butterfield added.
“It is necessary in today’s economy,” he said. “Broadband access is important for education. It’s important for economic development. Places that do not have broadband … they fall behind. Today’s announcement could not come at a better time.”
Castro said in closing that HUD is proud to stand with the families of Wilson.
“We are proud to work with you and invest with you to help this great city become once again the envy of North Carolina,” Castro said.