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Children love their freedom. Going to school and playing with friends are usually the only things on a child's mind, and normally not in that order. When a serious or terminal illness hits, a child's world suddenly becomes limited to what they can access from their bed, and friends can disappear.
Technology can be a window to the outside world that gives these children back some of their freedom, and becomes a companion in the process.
Brian Westerman and his wife Pepper created the Kosch-Westerman Foundation over two decades ago with the mission of connecting terminally ill children to their classrooms through technology. Their project began with just one or two kids attending classes with the help of a camera and a clunky laptop.
Now the foundation has evolved into a family effort that has given more than 1,000 children a window to the outside world.
The Kosch-Westerman Foundation begins by going to the homes of these terminally ill or seriously injured children to set up donated hardware for the children to use. Brian uses donated laptops and tablets with Skype software, connected to cameras in the children's classrooms. This allows the children to tune in to classes from a remote location.
This simple setup also allows the children to escape from the confines of their disease to attend classes virtually and chat with friends and family members at all hours.
Brian says that many children are on the laptops all the time, and that the technology becomes a companion that makes situations like waiting long hours for chemotherapy treatment a little more bearable:
"Imagine you are a child who has just gone through chemo treatment. … your laptop is really your only friend."
For school use, the Kosch-Westerman Foundation installs up to three cameras per classroom that are focused on the teacher, as well as an additional camera facing toward the students. This last camera is where the sick children spend most of their time looking — joining in the inside jokes and secret laughter behind the teacher's back.
No one would expect to have to protect terminally ill children from hackers or malicious content online. Unfortunately Brian soon discovered that these innocent kids were actually incredibly vulnerable:
"We were more concerned with the children and making their lives as easy as possible than thinking what's on the other side [of a camera]. We had just assumed that people wouldn't take advantage of that kind of situation," says Brian.
He was wrong.
Brian received reports from teachers, who can also view the sick student watching the class via video, of losing the video connection during class. Brian first checked to make sure the problem was not with the cameras. Looking deeper, he realized that the problem was being caused by hackers who had been looking back through the laptop cameras to prey on the vulnerable children.
Sometimes, there really can be too much of a good thing.
Brian found this out the hard way when he heard reports of the sick children accidentally stumbling onto sites with names like "bee-bop" and discovering not their favorite show, but another, darker side of the Internet, including financial scams, malware, and adult content.
With hackers watching children during class and naïve kids stumbling onto inappropriate web content or accidentally downloading malware, Brian turned to TechSoup and Symantec for help.
Brian immediately went to TechSoup.org to request licenses of a Norton security product from the Symantec donation program:
"We got 12 copies of it right off the bat. We ran it on every computer and found a lot of stuff that was really bad. …it [Norton] actually corrected all of that."
Brian now runs these programs on all of his 41 laptops and 8 (now 9!) tablets the family uses to connect children to their friends and family. "The Norton stuff seems to get everything. …We are back to the point now where we are cautiously optimistic," Brian reports gladly.
The Kosch-Westerman Foundation has now helped more than 1,000 children to date, and continues to enrich the lives of sick kids, with the help of Brian and Pepper's own two children.
Dozens of volunteers, and even a semi-pro football player, have helped the family over the years, but no one ever lasts more than a year or two. Brian says, "It's very depressing when you actually go to pick up ... [the laptop]. … it's not something a lot of people can do."
When the technology has to be retrieved after it is no longer needed, Brian's family is often forced by circumstance to act as interim counselors to grief-stricken parents:
"When a child dies, often the parents want to keep the laptops we provide. We lose five or six each year. It's not a quick process to retrieve the computers. Parents are grieving and want to talk," he says.
Brian reports that his own children are often the best counselors they can have. Speaking about his son, Brian says, "He's actually very empathetic with all of these people. … He learned so much over the years that he can give feedback that helps these people a lot. … So it's great to have our kids do that."
With the help of his wife, two children, and the right technology, Brian makes the lives of these sick kids a bit happier. By giving these children the technology to help them connect with loved ones and escape their rooms virtually, the Kosch-Westerman Foundation is enriching lives every day.
The Kosch-Westerman Foundation was the first-place winner in TechSoup's October Safer Online Success Stories contest.
This post was written by Wesley White, New Sector Alliance RISE Fellow at TechSoup.
Image: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
Does Norton do URL filtering? (I need it in my early education classrooms)
Hi cssmv! You'll want to check out Norton Family, a free service Symantec offers directly: onlinefamily.norton.com/.../loginStart.fs
Beautiful journey. I'm ordering Norton now for one of our laptops. Our Global Math Initiative project in South Africa can surely benefit from this software and lessons learned. Though we work with high school students, I still desire added protection and a private platform for sharing ideas. Any suggestions?
Hi powerorg, we just published a blog post that discusses different collaboration tools that may be of help. It is here: forums.techsoup.org/.../telecommuting-toolkit-what-you-need-to-work-remotely.aspx (see the section marked "Collaboration Tools"). Also, you could consider using a tool like Basecamp. Google Docs might also be useful.
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