FreeGeek Chicago gives volunteers hands-on training in restoring old computers to sell or recycle – while they earn credits toward taking home their own desktop or laptop free of charge.
By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer, The Christian Science Monitor
June 14, 2013 at 8:00 am EDT
When David Eads looked around for inspiration for FreeGeek Chicago, a group that promotes computer literacy for underprivileged households, he put his finger on an unlikely source: the Apple Store.
True, the sleek retail outlets, decked in soothing design elements with their Genius Bars helmed by furrowed-browed computer professionals, on the surface may feel like an alternate universe compared with FreeGeek's digs: a dark, cluttered basement in a former Woolworth's store, the radio blasting old-school soul tunes, and a hive of workers tearing apart antiquated hard drives with glee.
But Mr. Eads came to understand that he and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs shared a mission: Make computing easy and fun.
"An Apple Store for the rest of us" is how Eads explains his organization. "We saw the Apple Store and said, 'We want to be that. But really, really grimy.' "
Eads helped found FreeGeek in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood in 2005 after noticing his chosen fields – computer programming, IT, and design – lacked faces and perspectives different from his own.
"In a lot of ways, the professional world I work in is not as diverse as the city I live in," he says. "There's a frustrating lack of nuts and bolts, hands-on education." FreeGeek became "an experiment [to see] if a different model of nonprofit would work."
Not-for-profit FreeGeek is modeled after a similar organization in Portland, Ore. Instead of seeking grants or operating with a rigid hierarchy, the group is decidedly democratic: Costs are paid by recycling donated computer equipment, selling refurbished hardware to low-income buyers, or individual donations.
A staff of four helps guide hundreds of volunteers through a process that teaches them the basics of how computers work and then gives them hands-on training in restoring old computers to sell or recycle – all while they earn credits toward taking home their own desktop or laptop free of charge.
"We live in a world surrounded by computers," Eads says. The program, which requires new volunteers to rip apart old hard drives, assess their potential resale value, clear their memories, and install new hardware on them, can present a monumental challenge, especially for those who have never touched a keyboard in their lives.
"It demystifies computing and makes them feel empowered. We think that's really helpful," he says.
The digital divide in the United States remains steep. According to a report published in April by the Pew Research Center, about 90 percent of middle-income earners – those making between $50,000 and $74,000 annually – are online. But that rate drops to 62 percent for those making less than $30,000.
About 94 percent of those with college degrees are online, more than double the percentage of those with only high school degrees, 43 percent of whom are online.
Computer literacy helps lift people out of poverty by making them more appealing to potential employers. It also helps people find, and apply for, potential jobs in the first place.
While wealthier households may take home desktops for granted – using them for tasks such as doing homework and online shopping – not having that access automatically puts struggling households behind, says Taniesha Woods, a senior research associate at the National Center for Children in Poverty, which operates out of Columbia University in New York City.
"For many low-income and poor families, they do really value computers, but at the same time, there are other competing products and services they need," Ms. Woods says. "In the choice between having a computer and paying your electric bill, you can imagine which one will win."
Lowering the cost of a laptop or desktop helps bridge that gap.
Other public-private endeavors popping up in cities across the US are also helping to make online access affordable, if not free. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in April that the city would partner with Connect2Compete, a nonprofit associated with cable provider Comcast. It will offer high-speed Internet service for as little as $9.95 a month. Families earning $35,000 or less will be able to buy a computer for $150.
While it is becoming easier to buy a computer and go online, what to do once you're there is a different challenge. "You can lead people to computers, but that does not necessarily mean they can use them to their full potential," Woods says. "That will be a big part of supporting people's use of the technology."
Lorraine Johnson knows the situation all too well. Before volunteering at FreeGeek she could sum up her previous computer experience succinctly: none. "I used to try to fill [out job] applications online, and it was like pulling teeth," she says. "I really, really hated it."
Growing up, Ms. Johnson says, she was "living out of the mainstream" in "a lifestyle that didn't consist of computers or anything of that nature." She now is enrolled in college taking prerequisite courses to prepare for nursing school, her dream, while supporting two young children. In 2010, she realized that she and her children all needed a computer at home.
"I didn't have any expectations," she says. "I had to ask for help. That shattered some of the ways I had been doing things."
FreeGeek helped her earn $75 in credit to purchase her own computer. She now teaches others and returns three hours a week to clean, organize, and prep computers for resale.
Johnson views FreeGeek as a social outlet. "I have built a relationship with them, and I want to keep them in my life," she says.
It's the social aspect of FreeGeek that keeps its volunteers – 800 in 2012 – committed to stepping out of the daylight and into its basement quarters. At first blush, the scene might seem apocalyptic: Old hard drives, circuit boards, CD-ROM readers, and other hardware are stacked on the floor, shelving units, and pallets. But the room is organized as finely as any surgical floor of a hospital.
One area houses pallets of home-computing rubble ready for recycling. Woolworth's onetime coal room now is home to stacks of old laptops that, one by one, are repurposed. In another area computer memories are wiped (a hammer is handy just in case the high-tech method doesn't work). A back room serves as a classroom where new volunteers undergo crash courses on open-source software (the Linux operating system is installed on every wiped hard drive), hardware essentials, and more.
"We take the scary stuff out of computers. For those who fear computers, it's the best way to deal with fear," Eads says.
Eads grew up in Kennewick, Wash., and arrived in Chicago more than 10 years ago to enroll as a physics major at North Park University here. He soon became involved in freelance journalism and Web design. His "day job" is as an interactive design editor at the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
Last year, FreeGeek's revenues were just shy of $100,000, which came from both computer sales and recycling 20 tons of used equipment.
FreeGeek Chicago would like to create satellite locations in some of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods and expand to include cellphones and tablets, which are emerging as the dominant tools to access the Internet, Eads says. Repairing and refurbishing them will become an important skill in the future.
He has also established an offshoot of FreeGeek – the Supreme Chi-Town Coding Crew, which meets Saturday afternoons to learn programming and software-development skills.
Already, his students are working on projects destined to make an impact in the marketplace: an inmate-tracker program for the Cook County Sheriff's Office, and a program that tracks birthrates in Chicago based on city data.
"Those on the bottom lack basic digital literacy and access to computers," Eads says. "[Using computers] is the way you do everything. Once people have hands-on experience, they're in a much better position to find a job."