Once a month, a room in the Lake Mary Senior Center fills with raised hands, mobile devices and at least a little bit of magenta.
When Cydni Russell, T-Mobile retail associate manager, moved to the Orlando suburb of Sanford, Florida from Alabama in 2011, she didn’t unpack grand designs to help hundreds of local older adults with a range of wireless basics and in-depth tech tips.
But six years into her career at T-Mobile, she was looking for ways to build up a brand relationship with her community, and the idea found her.
“Appy Hour is an hour-long class,” she explains, “and every month, we talk about a different application of the students’ choice.”
Lake Mary's director tallies requests and emails Cydni the popular choice a few weeks before each class. She readies a three-slide presentation, and they cover this topic for the first 30 minutes.
"But the second half, that's their favorite part - open Q&A. Some of our students come in with a notebook full of questions. And then, as we help them with their phones, their tablets and their watches, they take notes."
"Older adults will sometimes come into our stores, buy a phone, and need someone to sit down and teach them a few things," Cydni says. "So the need exists. But when people ask me why I started Appy Hour, I really just did it because of my Grandma Pru."
Any time Cydni's grandmother needs help with her device, she calls. "It made me wonder, how many other grandmothers are out there without someone who lives nearby to ask? One day, an older person came into the store asking for help adding a new contact to their phone, something so simple. And helping is just the right thing to do, especially because none of us would be here without these folks. So that's what really did it - that's the aha moment. It's about my grandma."
Before Cydni’s grandmother inspired Appy Hour, she was the reason Cydni landed in Orlando.
Eleven years ago, Cydni and her one-year-old son Ethan were living living arrangement in which she didn't feel safe, she explains, so her grandmother picked them up late at night and moved them into her own home. The two had always had a special bond, but as she tried to plan the next steps for herself and her one-year-old, her grandmother shared a story Cydni hadn't heard before.
"After bedtime, she came into the room where I was staying and sat down. And there can be a lot of stigma around talking about volatile domestic situations but she told me that she had also been in a difficult relationship, and that's why she'd taken her kids and moved to Orlando all these years ago." They moved again later, to be closer to family in Alabama, but the story inspired Cydni, and her planning was done.
In Florida, Cydni says, "It took a community. At one point my manager at an earlier Metro store had me place Ethan in the same daycare system as his child, so if I was stuck at work, he could do pickup for me. There was a time when it felt like everyone in my store was on my son's pickup list. That's how we made it work together, and that's how I was able to grow with this company."
Years later, with her grandmother in mind once more, Cydni checked with her manager about her idea. "The time's yours, I've got your back," she remembers him saying. So, she got to work.
Appy Hour “Regulars”
"I just started looking up senior centers in our community. I made a list, started calling them up, and the first location I called, their response was: 'Please, because get these questions and we need someone who knows what they're doing!'" Cydni remembers the director at the time explaining that she had an iPhone and knew some iOS tricks, but so many members had different devices that helping was hard.
The topics students request run the mobile device gamut, so Appy Hour classes have covered topics from GPS and location services to social media. "When we get to Q&A," Cydni says, "of course, there are basic questions on how to save a contact, how to FaceTime."
But what’s Cydni asked most often? “How do I take a picture from Facebook and save it to my phone?” “Sometimes they want to know how to upload pictures, but most often, they want to save a picture of someone in their family from Facebook to their phones,” she says.
For the benefit of all those out there who could use a little more connection, here’s Cydni’s helpful step-by-step explanation of the most common question her students at Lake Mary have: “How do I save a photo from my messaging apps to my phone?”
"They get a lot of pictures from their grandkids, too, and they want to know how to take a picture from their text messages and save it to their phones or print it out. So, we go into teaching about those things as well, with the printer at the Senior Center."
For years, Cydni helped students at the Lake Mary Senior Center with their devices and helped them connect with their families across distances. "One woman, in particular, has been trying to set me up with her son for the longest time. You know how you can tell when you've earned someone's trust? When they're ready to make you a member of their family," Cydni says. "And she's a firecracker. She takes over the room! And she's always so proud to let everyone else know that she's been going to Appy Hour since day one, the first class."
Pandemic Pause to Triumphant Return
In early 2020, Appy Hour earned Cydni a place in T-Mobile's 2019 Winners Circle, an annual company award program based on nominations and performance. Another Metro by T-Mobile store reached out about the program, eager to implement it in their own community. "They'd just done their very first class," she remembers. Then, the pandemic happened.
"When COVID hit, one of the first thoughts I had was about how of course we couldn't have classes anymore. It was just too dangerous. But I did reach out and share my email address, and a few of the students would FaceTime me with their questions."
Cydni's store was closed at the onset of the pandemic, part of a company-wide effort to balance safety and service by keeping stores open in critical mass locations and shifting to virtual retail in others. Like many T-Mobile employees during the pandemic, she adapted, commuting to Daytona as acting manager for another team. Later, she transitioned to a new T-Mobile store, changing managers. But once restrictions eased, she was ready.
Cydni brought Appy Hour up to her new manager during their weekly alignment, and David Recio remembers the conversation well. "We spoke about any hot topics and urgent matters, but this conversation was just a little bit different. We were focused on getting outside of our door to find opportunities and getting to be a part of the community." That's when Cydni introduced Appy Hour.
"She explained the process and what goes into the program, and without hesitation, I was on board. I could see the passion that Cydni had when speaking about Appy Hour and making a change in the community. How could I say no?"
"The focus shifted," David says, "from how we bring in sales customers to how we impact our communities. Cydni inspired me to think outside of the box and really embrace the Un-carrier culture. She is an awesome leader, and I am grateful to have her on my team."
Cydni remembers the unquestioning support. "I told him, 'I promise you it's going to make a difference,' and he just said: 'I trust you. Go for it.'"
Watching the class quickly fill with familiar faces and fresh tips and tricks, David says, “I believe the original reason the students started showing up was for the educational portion of Appy Hour. Learning how you use your devices and being proficient in their apps is important.”
"But there are regulars because they get a sense of community. Cydni has built a community of people who look forward to being helped, taught and appreciated, and that's what Appy Hour is about," he says.
In a recent class, Cydni offered tips and tricks on health apps. “I showed them how they can utilize Apple Health if they have an iPhone, how they can use My Fitness Pal to track their diet, and how their hospitals and doctors have different apps which will show their lab work and other things they need.” She says Apple Watch’s safety features were another hot topic.
After a few months in action, peers are reaching out again. "Cydni has been able to influence retail store managers and district managers to make Appy Hour part of their culture," David says. Cydni's excited to help them launch Appy Hour programs in their communities.
Plus, she has another open invitation to attend to.
"I've been invited to learn how to crochet with members of the Senior Center," Cydni beams. She looks forward to learning from her students.
Want more Appy Hour? Follow Cydni on Twitter: @THECYDNIRUSSELL
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