Friday, July 30, 2010

Computer Repair USA, LLC

Computer Repair, originally uploaded by triangletechgroup.

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For those who use PCs every day, it's hard to remember how we ever got by without them. Right now more than a third of the homes in the United States have a computer, and that number is growing daily. But many people still can't afford one. In fact, that old 386 or 286 (or even an ancient 8088) gathering dust in your garage could be a real boon to a child, an invalid, or anyone else who doesn't have access to a computer.

Ever thought about setting up a computer-recycling program? Before you say you don't have time, consider the efforts of Andrew Adkins and Joel Bridges. This month these computer consultants from Gainesville, Florida, describe how they devoted just a few hours a week to helping redistribute the PC wealth in their area. -- Ed.

Organizing the Organizers

These days it's hard to find a professional who doesn't complain about lack of time. Take us, for example. We each work about 60 hours a week running our consulting businesses. Between managing projects for about 150 clients each, serving on the boards of various organizations, and looking after our families, neither of us has much time for volunteering. But last year we discovered how easy and rewarding it could be to set up a volunteer computer- recycling program. And we were surprised by how little time it took to do something to benefit our community.

About four years ago, a community business organization to which we belong helped establish a free electronic bulletin board service called Free-net, where residents of Alachua County, Florida, could find job listings, forums, minutes of school board meetings, a calendar of scheduled events, Internet access, and the like. The service, which now serves 17,000 users, has been very successful. But the popularity of a democratic service like Free-net caused us to wonder about the people who couldn't afford computers. Weren't they being unfairly shut out of our electronic community?

The obvious solution was to find a way of getting computers to those who couldn't afford them. Several organizations do collect old computers and pass them on to people in need. The Cristina Foundation, for example, gives unwanted computers to disabled children. The East West Foundation donates used computers to charities. But no national organization was likely to give our computers to someone in our community. We needed a local organization for this.

We already knew of churches, hospitals, schools, and social service and volunteer agencies that craved computers; the trick was to find people to gather unwanted systems, add modems, and redistribute them. After wrestling with the idea, we both decided that we were the right people to round up volunteers. As computer consultants, we already had a huge network of clients, dealers, and fellow consultants who might be able to help.

Our first step was to locate a workshop where the computers could be stored and made operable. This was easier than we thought: The local school board had spare space in its maintenance area. Next, we sent letters to 35 computer dealers and consultants, asking if they would serve as drop-off points for old computers. We got 20 positive responses. Since we already knew the respondents as business associates, it was easy to combine work with do-gooding. During routine business calls, we distributed tax-donation forms to be given to those who offered old computers; a sheet for recording inventory on the hardware these companies took in; and a form with contact information for coordinating pickups.

Some dealers volunteered to test the computers to see if they worked; others offered discounts to those who donated systems -- good business sense, since a donor was either a customer or likely to become one. The total time it took us to write and send the letter, create the forms, and visit the dealers and consultants was just 10 hours.

The next step was to find people who could pick up and repair the computers. This was easy, too: By advertising on Free-net and putting the word out at local user groups, we rounded up volunteers, who meet in the workshop every few weeks for repair sessions.

One local agency even sponsored an ad campaign on local TV and radio and in the newspapers, asking for old computers as well as volunteers for our computer-recycling operation. As a result, we gained a dozen eager helpers, including some good technicians. (Initially, there was such an outpouring of old computers -- usually Apple IIs, Commodores, IBM PC XTs, and 286s -- that we simply dumped them wherever there was room in our repair shop. We have that chaos under control now, with a staging area for new donations, a storage area for checked-out systems, and a delivery area for recycled systems.)

The final step was to coordinate deliveries. This was easy: Every couple of weeks, the volunteers deliver and install systems.

Reaping the Rewards

Since November 1994 our group has collected more than 150 computers, 25 of which have been refurbished and delivered to people who think a PC XT is a gift from heaven. Once we took a computer to an 18-year-old man with cerebral palsy. The man's parents purchased a special adapter that allows him to use a joystick to enter commands; now he has a way to communicate. We gave a computer and printer to a woman who opens up her home to help underprivileged youngsters with their homework; the kids are doing better than ever in school. We gave one to a Nigerian man who sends donations of badly needed medical supplies and textbooks to his country: When we showed him how to send E-mail messages to his homeland, his eyes filled with tears.

Results like these -- and the outpouring of donations, time, energy, and effort from all kinds of people -- constantly remind us what a positive impact a program like this is having on our community.

The Cristina Foundation, 800/274-7846
The East West Foundation, 617/542-1234
Bronwyn Fryer is a contributing editor for PC World. If you use PCs to manage people and other resources in a business environment, we want to hear from you -- we pay $300 for published columns.

Source Citation
Fryer, Bronwyn. "Turning have-nots into haves." PC World 13.9 (1995): 27+. Computer Database. Web. 30 July 2010.
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