Technology on the move: Founder of NOW Youth, Inc. buses computer lab to underprivileged kids

by KIM HILSENBECK

When James R. Jacobs of Kyle was young, his father used to tell him there were always new opportunities waiting for him. Jacobs took those opportunities.

As a teenager, Jacobs got involved with technology, including being part of the Intel Clubhouse in Tacoma, Wash., where he grew up.

“I’ve always loved technology,” Jacobs said during a recent interview.

He also had a passion for getting involved in his community, which may have stemmed from the fact that his dad is Rev. James L. Jacobs, currently a pastor at the Word of Life Church in east Kyle.

Jacobs’ family moved to Texas in 2004. For his dad, it was a coming home of sorts.

“My dad grew up in Hutto,” Jacobs said. “He’s a Hutto Hippo.”

James R. Jacobs of Kyle had a dream about a technology bus for low-income students. Today, his dream is a reality. Jacobs, with the help of community and corporate donations, operates NOW Youth, Inc., a nonprofit designed to help bring technology education to students in their neighborhoods in and around Kyle and San Marcos. (Photo by Kim Hilsenbeck)

The Air Force took his dad to Washington, where Jacobs and his three brothers, including his twin, lived until they went to college.

“I went to UT Austin and my twin went to Texas State,” he said.

Jacobs didn’t follow his father’s footsteps into the pulpit. But he knew he wanted to bring technology education to the kids who may not have the same access to technology as others.

“Lower income students don’t get exposed to technology as much as they should,” Jacobs said. “Technology is a hands-on activity – they have to see it and touch it to make it work.”

He felt joining technology with education would help bridge the gap for lower-income students who want to continue their education, especially in high-tech fields such as math and science. But how would he accomplish that?

“I’ve always had a fascination with RVs. I had a dream one night of a motor home with computers for kids to learn about technology,” Jacobs said.

When he woke, he had no idea how to make that happen but knew it was something he had to do.

Following his nighttime vision, this self-proclaimed tech geek got to work developing a plan and figuring out how to make his dream a reality.

As the younger Jacobs was thinking of a name for his nonprofit organization, his father suggested New Opportunities Waiting, or NOW.

It stuck.

NOW Youth, Inc. is a mobile technology bus that delivers access to technology education to primarily low-income students in and around Kyle and San Marcos.

“I invested my own money to buy the bus,” he said. “That was in 2010.”

It then took about a year for Jacobs to develop the plan for the organization, secure funding and revamp the bus interior.

Initially, Jacobs said, the plan was to go into the school, but there were already so many organizations that offered after-school programs.

“We decided to go another route and take the bus to the kids, in their neighborhoods,” Jacobs said.

That bus, which Jacobs bought used from a man in Bandera, Texas, now has the capacity to have 12 students at a time interact with computer technology. Students, primarily elementary and middle school aged, sit at stools inside the colorfully decorated bus while exploring computer technology.

The neighborhoods the bus visits include the Saddlecreek apartments in Kyle.

“We also offer after school tutoring, help with homework. It’s all absolutely for free,” Jacobs said.

According to Jacobs, funding for the program comes from local donations, people from his dad’s church and the community.

“Valero gave us $5,000 for the technology purchase; we bought most everything at Best Buy,” Jacobs said. “Most weeks, we have 30 to 40 students show up at the bus.”

The kids waiting outside engage in basketball and other activities while waiting for their turn inside. Everything is supervised by a team of volunteers, interns and paid staff.

Jacobs said NOW is partnering with another nonprofit called MATH – Making Awesome Things Happen, based in Austin. MATH provides tutors, including several who speak Spanish, who meet up with the bus and offer the kids help with homework.

“Parents are loving it,” Jacobs said of the concept. “We’ve even had a few parents come to us for tutoring; they’re getting their GEDs. The kids are helping their parents.”

For Jacobs, who oversees a small staff of mostly unpaid interns and one paid bus driver, operating the technology bus is a rewarding experience. But it’s not his day job; Jacobs works as a marketing consultant for churches and other organizations. The bus is something he does because he believes it’s important.

“The bus helps kids do something positive and stay active.”

The biggest challenge, Jacobs said, is how fast technology changes these days; keeping up with it is hard. That’s why he wants to move to using tablets instead of laptops, because it’s easier to upgrade the operating system, rather than all the hardware.

The tech bus model also includes an incentive program for students. Each time they attend a bus session, they earn “money” that can be used at the in-house store for items such as candy, games, trinkets, skateboards and more.

“So it teaches them about earning, saving and spending,” Jacobs said.

His latest plans for the organization include an inflatable tent and a second bus.

“Now that we’re getting much more out there, we can only do so much,” Jacobs said. “Other organizations want to use our bus. It’s a great model and people love it. But we can’t be two places at once.”

And while he isn’t entirely sure how these new ventures will be funded, he is undaunted.

The experience of getting the organization up and running from a dream to reality makes Jacobs very happy.

“It’s great to see students enjoy this, to see them love it and want to come back. They get upset when the bus is late. It’s exciting to see something I dreamed about come true,” he said.

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