Southern California Gas Co. donated $60,000 to help YMCA-LA provide free internet access to in-need communities in response to the pandemic-caused educational crisis in Los Angeles County. Four YMCA centers launched the initiative, with plans to expand to all 26 YMCA locations.

The goal is to bridge the lack of wireless connectivity in underserved communities as L.A. County students continue distance learning.

“We feel that the internet is such an essential utility, just how electricity is in your home,” said Mario Valenzuela, YMCA-LA’s vice president of equity and inclusion. “We’re just so appreciative of the partnership to be able to provide this opportunity for students.”

Internet accessibility is critical for distance learning. Students who lack a computer with broadband access could use digital devices, but these devices are more likely shared between siblings or parents in the household. Some students have to go to fast-food restaurants for Wi-Fi.

“When you think about a community member who doesn’t have access to Wi-Fi, now they could easily go to the YMCA and have a safe space,” said Trisha Muse, director of community relations at Southern California Gas Co. “Either inside or out in their parking lot or outside their facility.”

The four YMCA branches that kickstarted the initiative on Oct. 19 include Weingart East Los Angeles, Montebello YMCA, Crenshaw YMCA and Weingart Wellness and Aquatic Center. Plans call for an additional 20 branches to be online by November. The last two branches will roll out the program in the following months.

The unlimited internet access is available to the whole community, non-YMCA members included. Most centers will operate Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m or 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Services inside the facilities provide tutoring with homework. Wi-Fi connectivity can be reached outside the facility in the parking lot and is free to community members.

“The initiative is a great thing,” said USC Professor of Education Lawrence Picus. “For school children, it doesn’t do them a lot of good if the schools try to get them computers to log on if they can’t connect to the internet.”

The YMCA free internet access is not only for students, but also for older community members. It is available for those who are job searching, need telehealth or have other internet needs.

YMCA and Southern California Gas Co. have a longstanding relationship working to help the community. Earlier in the year, the two partnered for YMCA’s Grab and Go Meal Program, which provided over 1 million meals to children under 18.

Since the start of the pandemic, Southern California Gas Co. repurposed a number of their grants to help the communities and nonprofits.

“We have been part of the community for over 150 years and we think it’s the right thing to do to help the communities we serve and to give back,” said Muse.

YMCA provides more than free internet access. Locations offer sanitation programs that provide showers for the homeless, free pet food and flu shots. Valenzuela, who participated in YMCA as a child, said they are committed to provide for the underserved members of the communities as an act of paying it forward.

“For us, it’s just a matter of being fluid,” Valenzuela said."We’re going to keep adapting to address community needs."