Good Golly Miss MOLLIE

June 28, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS—She may not be much to look at, but MOLLIE has sure captured the gaze of many area kids.

MOLLIE is a used van loaded with high-tech goodies, an acronym for MObile Learning Laboratory for Information Education, and the most recent in a growing list of creations to come from the Community Media Center (CMC).

Mannie Gentile, CMC MOLLIE coordinator, has been steering the van to public schools, neighborhood associations and community centers since February, getting it out on the streets just months before the center’s 20th anniversary celebration in May.

Coming along on the rides have been 20 Apple iBook wireless laptops, 16 digital video cameras and a staff of volunteers who give on-site computer, video production and post-production training to those who usually don’t have a chance to surf the Internet or learn how to use the latest electronic gizmos.

CMC Executive Director Dirk Koning, winner of the 2002 Liberty Bell Award from the Grand Rapids Bar Association and the only director the $2 million operation has had, is proud of MOLLIE. But at the same time, he doesn’t see it as the center’s final triumph. Rather he looks at it as a means to an end.

“The kids get all excited when they use the equipment and produce their own videos. But then as MOLLIE drives away, we look in the rear-view mirror and we see their faces slowly drop as they realize that’s it for the week, the month or the year,” said Koning.

“That’s really not our ultimate goal. The goal is to get MOLLIE in there, show the need and the interest, build the skill level and then hopefully help empower them to get their own equipment and their own connectivity,” he added.

“Then they, too, will be part of the 21st Century.”

MOLLIE is the latest method employed by the center to fill its mission, and that is to build community through radio, television and the Internet on a non-discriminatory basis. But Koning knew that to make the mission be successful, he had to get the tools out to those who couldn’t afford their own or get to places where these things were available.

So CMC developed MOLLIE, which Koning described as a mini-Media Center on wheels, through an $80,000 grant from SBC/Ameritech, then leveraged that money into a larger $234,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“The second phase of that, which I am working on now, is that we will have high-speed wireless connectivity from MOLLIE to various place in town to provide broadband Internet access from those laptops in real time.”

Koning has also offered MOLLIE to the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the Delta Strategy and other business groups as a portable way to hold interactive conferences that could be broadcast on the Internet and solicit e-mail responses.

He is also working on a plan to get MOLLIE to migrant workers along the lake shore so they can e-mail home instead of calling. He has learned that some workers spend up to 20 percent of their meager paychecks each summer phoning home.

Koning figured that the cost to build MOLLIE, not including the development expenses, came to around $50,000. CMC picked it up the van for about $10,000. He said that three other cities have asked him to design smaller $25,000 versions for them.

MOLLIE actually emerged from the center’s Web On Wheels (WOW) program that made its debut a few years ago.

“Now the technology is smaller, less expensive, and easier to use,” said Koning.

Even if the technology hadn’t evolved like it did, the WOW name had to go.

“I got a nasty letter from the Ford Motor Co. saying they owned the rights to ‘Web on Wheels’ and that I should think about changing it,” said Koning with a smile.

So CMC grant writer Nancy Burke Smith came up with MOLLIE, and Koning said he hasn’t received a threatening letter about the new name from another big Detroit wheel, Mitch Ryder.

“Not yet,” he laughed. “MOLLIE really is a fun concept.”

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