Homework hour felt like gathering around a campfire for one Inglewood area family.

Mom Vona would gather her three daughters close with their school laptops as she used her cell phone as a home internet hotspot. Vona has been out of work for almost a year after her office closed due to COVID-19. That meant there was no affording regular internet service even in a time when her children were required to attend school virtually.

The family faced consistent issues with unreliable Wi-Fi, including slow connections and internet crashes, sometimes in the middle of virtual classroom sessions and online tests.

“It was a major issue I had to tackle,” said Vona, 32, a single parent of a first-, fourth- and seventh-grader. “I was trying to stay still in one spot and have them all around me. It was extremely hard. And then I had to keep explaining to the teachers — ‘hey, sorry, we had an internet issue.’”

But thanks to help from UnitedHealthcare and the SoLa I CAN Foundation, an affiliated non-profit of SoLA Impact, the family’s signal woes are a thing of the past. The two organizations have teamed up to provide free mobile hotspot devices to Vona and other pandemic-impacted households.

SoLa’s 1000 For 1000 Campaign set a goal of providing a thousand families with Wi-Fi service for a thousand days. The campaign recently received a $5,000 boost from UnitedHealthcare’s California health plan. Earlier in the pandemic, the company had made a similar campaign grant to help supply families with laptops.

“Our organization directly impacts the local South Los Angeles community as well as the social determinants of health. So, I thought it would be a really great partnership,” said Ariel Yarrish, a SoLa Foundation program manager, about her approaching the company for help.

Yarrish explained how the foundation realized that providing computers was only half the solution. The other half was getting students Wi-Fi connected.

“We started to hear that they were driving to Starbucks parking lots to be able to work out of their cars because they don’t have Wi-Fi at home,” she said. “They were even going to public centers to access it.”

The decision to support the campaign was an obvious one when the health plan’s Employee Community Engagement Committee heard about it, according to Diana Lyon, a UnitedHealthcare business analyst and one of the committee’s leaders.

“They were severely impacted when COVID hit, and so you can imagine, it was just very unfortunate,” said Lyon about the schooling situation for Vona and other local households. “We are proud to support SoLa’s efforts to help these families. Our UnitedHealthcare Employment Community Engagement Committee looks for ways throughout the year to support organizations that help as many families as possible.”

The committee has also helped establish a team of about 40 UnitedHealthcare employees who serve as volunteers in support of a SoLa job retraining and recovery program that aids adults who are out of work due to COVID. The program, established through a $1 million grant to SoLa from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation and other donors, calls on the volunteers to mentor adults as they enter new healthcare- and technology-related career paths.

“This is really about empowerment,” said Yarrish about the program and the foundation’s various efforts to aid communities. “It’s about helping people through this really challenging time, because there’s not one person that we know who hasn’t been affected by COVID in some way.”

In addition to the Wi-Fi device, Vona was happy to receive one of the free laptops for general household use. The computer, she noted, will be very helpful when the children have to return their school laptops once online learning ends. Without a doubt, the gift-givers have made a big difference for families like hers.

“I would like to tell them thank you for having such a kind heart and just really looking out for others, especially in these times where we kind of don’t know what to expect,” she said. “There’s always someone going through something worse. And you just got to appreciate what little you have, you know?”

SoLa Impact supported over 1,000 families with 1,000 days of free internet and 100’s of laptops, but the digital divide in South LA remains significant. To learn how you can help SoLa Impact close this gap, visit www.SoLaICan.org.