Mason notes that the lifeblood of the program is a community that cares – area organizations with computers to donate, volunteers willing to give their IT expertise, including a retired IBM executive and a Princeton University researcher, and others who have made monetary donations.
David Zboray, an IT specialist for Mercer Street Friends and the coordinator for TDI, says the program’s success is due in large part to MSF’s structured approach. “We have worked out the potential stumbling blocks.”
First, MSF found a way to refurbish the computers inexpensively, using software known as Ubuntu, a Linux-based operating system that is free, open source software and Microsoft Office compatible; it includes word processing, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program and Firefox. Second, through its Internet Essentials program, Comcast is providing MSF clients a special rate of only $9.95 per month.
Then there are the not-small matters of developing a team of workers to refurbish the machines and teaching people on the receiving end how to use them. MSF had answers for those issues as well, ones that are central to its mission.
“We put young people to work on the computers, teaching them how to deconstruct and rebuild them,” Zboray explains. “Then we teach adult clients who attend our parenting and family life classes how to use the machines and help to get them set up in the homes.”
If a computer malfunctions, the TDI team is ready to provide tech support. “If a computer breaks, sometimes we can trouble shoot a solution, or it can be replaced,” Zboray says, adding that a long-term goal is to have a help desk where clients can call in and get tech support from young trainees.
With the support of MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue and the college's Board of Trustees, IT staff member Sue Holman has been coordinating Mercer’s effort. She notes that once a computer can no longer be updated with the latest instructional software, its life at Mercer is over. “Now I don’t have to just throw these computers out. It’s wonderful. These are older computers, but they still work. They will continue to have a use.”
Zboray seconds that emotion. “I have been a computer guy my whole life. To see these computers being repurposed is great.”
According to Holman, MCCC's Information Technology students have gotten into the mix as well. “Our networking students have volunteered. They get real world experience shadowing technicians on the job as we wipe the drives and prepare the computers to be donated. It’s a resume builder and if the students put enough time in, they can earn college credits.”
Clearly, the program has hit on a need on both ends -- and in the middle: organizations that want to see their old computers put to good use, young people who can benefit from IT training, and families whose lives will be changed for the better with a computer in the home.
If Zboray needed any proof of the kind of change that can result, he got it early on. One of his very first clients, a single dad, was out of work and looking for a job in the food service industry. Once he had a computer in his home, he was able to do an online search and, within a short time, had gotten the job he wanted. And now his entire family is connected to the world.
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