Our Power in Partnership series highlights our national and regional partners and the work they do to build healthier communities.
Tell us about your organization.
Through the Trees is a nonprofit that was founded in 2020 to bridge the digital divide in Transylvania County, North Carolina. The pandemic affected our community significantly. Families with children enrolled in school suddenly had to pivot and educate their children at home virtually. With only limited access to technology and the Internet, many families struggled.
How would you explain the digital divide and why bridging it should be a top priority for state, local, and federal governments?
The digital divide disproportionately affects low-income families, rural communities, and marginalized groups, and it has become increasingly pronounced during the pandemic as more aspects of daily life move online.
Lack of access has significant ramifications on health and education. It is crucial that funding and resources help close this gap and ensure all members of society have equal access. Doing so will not only benefit individuals and families, but also lead to stronger and more prosperous communities and economies.
What are the main programs or offerings that Through the Trees provides? How has this expanded or evolved over time?
Our main focus is on providing Internet connectivity and devices to low-income households. We assess their current Internet options and what devices they are using. We help households apply to the Affordable Connectivity Program, which can provide a $30 discount on their monthly Internet bill. Our electronic refurbishing program allows us to match donated devices to individuals as needed.
As our organization has evolved, we have expanded our offerings to include ongoing support through digital literacy programs. We recognize that access to technology is just the first step in bridging the digital divide, and that ongoing education and support is critical to ensuring individuals and families can fully utilize the technology available to them. Through digital literacy programs, we provide training on topics such as online safety, basic computer skills, and job search and resume building. Our goal is to empower individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to fully participate in our increasingly digital world.
What was your experience like getting funding for Internet subsidies for the people that you serve? Were there any challenges or lessons learned that you could share?
The very first services we offered were Internet subsidies. Our program eased the burden of paying for the Internet at home. Through private donations and funding from Lake Toxaway Charities and Smart Start of Transylvania County, we paid $35 for six months.
Before the pandemic, many folks were getting by with free Internet access in town and did not have the financial resources to pay for it at home. In our county, the main Internet provider cost $75 a month. In our first year of operation, the only Internet subsidy program was Lifeline. This federal government program paid $9 a month directly to the service provider. Individuals had to get approved and apply this discount by going to the provider’s office in person. Having no way to do it online, this benefit was not used much at all.
We coupled our subsidy program with Lifeline to help bring their monthly bill down by nearly $45 per month.
When the government offered the Emergency Broadband Benefit in spring of 2021, our local provider was not a participant. They ended up applying and by September of that year, we were able to pivot and help folks apply to that service before offering ours. The EBB paid $50 a month towards Internet bills, allowing us to reserve our Internet subsidy funding for people who still could not be approved. This mainly affected households where the adults were not U.S. citizens. Providing a Social Security Number was a requirement for the EBB. Being able to pivot and staying up to date with the Broadband expansion community helped us support many households on a shoestring budget in our first year.
Through the Trees recently started working with formerly incarcerated people who are reentering society. Can you tell us more about this program?
A woman that we helped in our first year of operation has become a change agent for United Way. This year, she started referring reentry clients to us. Through Internet subsidies and donated devices, we are giving these individuals the tools they need to be successful. It’s a full-circle moment and we love seeing those ripple effects of support.
How does collaborating with community-based organizations play a role in your work?
The Unite Us Platform allows us to receive referrals from other agencies in and out of the country. The Emergency Broadband Benefit transitioned to the Affordable Connectivity Program in spring of 2022. We have been a part of this great platform for a year now. What we love about these out-of-town referrals and the federal Internet subsidy program is that we are no longer restricted by the boundaries of Transylvania County. We have officially changed our mission statement to “Connecting the Community through Technology,” and we can accept referrals from anywhere.
Why did you choose to partner with Unite Us? How has working with Unite Us impacted the work that you do?
Through the Trees chose to partner with Unite Us because they have a platform that helps streamline the referral process for social services in our community. We recognized that many of the people we serve may need additional support beyond Internet access and devices, and Unite Us provides a way for us to easily refer individuals to other organizations for services such as healthcare, food assistance, and housing.
Working with Unite Us has allowed us to provide a more comprehensive approach to helping people in our community. By collaborating with other organizations, we can ensure that the people we serve are getting the support they need to thrive. Unite Us has also provided us with a way to track our referrals and see the impact of our work in real time.
What’s next for Through the Trees?
Through the Trees has a number of exciting initiatives planned for the future. We are thrilled to be opening our Upcycle Tech thrift store, which will be a valuable resource for our community. With the thrift store, we aim to help people refurbish their devices and make technology more accessible to those who might not be able to afford it otherwise. This will allow us to continue providing devices to more people in our community and reduce the number of electronics that end up in landfills.
We are also considering hosting a conference that will focus on helping educators in our area learn about ways that AI can impact their teaching. The conference will provide an opportunity for educators to learn about new tools and techniques they can use to enhance their students’ learning experiences.
Lastly, we are looking to expand our work in the community, which includes exploring new partnerships with local organizations and expanding the services we offer. Our goal is to continue to bridge the digital divide in Transylvania County and ensure everyone has access to the technology they need to thrive in the digital age.
For more information about Through the Trees, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or visit our website. You can also come to our shop, Upcycle Tech, located at 470 Asheville Hwy, Suite B, Brevard, NC 28712. We look forward to meeting you.
It is partnerships like these that enable Unite Us to work collaboratively with community partners across the country to connect individuals to the services they need when they need them most. Our national network includes a wide range of utilities organizations and programs that can offer support for home energy, Internet access, and utility bill payment. To learn more about how Unite Us can help organizations proactively identify and address their community’s needs with a data-driven approach, read our blog on connecting utility customers to social care.
Learn more about how to bring Unite Us to your organization:
About Unite Us
Unite Us is the nation’s leading software company bringing sectors together to improve the health and well-being of communities. We drive the collaboration to identify, deliver, and pay for services that impact whole-person health. Through Unite Us’ national network and software, community-based organizations, government agencies, and healthcare organizations are all connected to better collaborate to meet the needs of the individuals in their communities.