Sunday, December 12, 2010

Non-profit organization helps "the needy get nerdy"

Mathew Clark is spending his Saturday afternoon in an industrial warehouse in Toronto’s Junction area, where he is screwing tight electronic cards into a computer tower.

Clark is a volunteer at Free Geek Toronto, a non-profit organization where used and recycled computer equipment is refurbished.

“The first time I came here I worked for four hours learning this. And now I can do it on my own,” he said.

When entering the warehouse you’ll notice old computer monitors, hard drives, and electronic cards stacked up on shelves, volunteers assemble computer different components and look for parts that fit.

Tobie Marven, a volunteer co-ordinator, said Free Geek’s main objectives are limiting electronic waste and making technology more accessible to those who lack financial means or technical knowledge.

“We’re helping the needy get nerdy,” she said. “There is an over abundance of computers that people are just throwing out and there is a huge group of people who can’t afford computers.”

Free Geek offers two programs. The Adoption Program gives each person, after 24 hours of volunteer service a computer. In the Build Program, volunteers build five computers and a sixth to take home.

“We’re giving computers for people who want to volunteer, or selling them for $50,” Marven explained.

Most of the equipment Free Geek uses is donated. Marven said a lot of people throw out their electronics when they have no use for them.

“We also refurbish and then we make sure things are being recycled ethically,” she explained.

“There are so many harmful contaminants in these equipment, and by getting people to donate them, we are minimizing the amount of contaminants going into our land fills.”

According to Stats Canada more than 100,000 tons of electronic wastes is generated annually. Marven said the environmental aspect of the organization is one of the reasons people donate their unwanted computer parts.

“People hear about E-Waste (electronic waste) and they hear about us, so they want to be part of the solution,” Marven said.

Large bins containing mouses and keyboards sit in the drop off area. People donate their unwanted equipment, and volunteers test the equipment before reusing them.

Free Geek started in Portland, Ore. in 2000, and has locations in 12 cities across Canada and the United States. Its Toronto location opened to the public last March.

Perhaps one thing that stands out about Free Geek is that they use Linux Operating System, an open source software system. This means there are no restrictions on customizing upgrading or redistributing the software.

Marven was initially drawn to Free Geek by the idea of open source software.

“I like open source software, but prior to starting here I never opened a computer in my life,” she said. “I took the build class, and I learned how to test all the components and now I’m able to help people do this.”

The programs are completely run by volunteers. Marven said this is a motivating factor for people to continue working at Free Geek.

“What’s different here is if you volunteer in other places you have a small role to play, there is this entire paid staff who will find something smaller for you to do.” She said. “But here you can quickly become a key part of the organization, and part of making decisions.”

Hue Cameron, worked as a technical support technician in the 1990s, and had to leave his job due to a disability.

Cameron came to Free Geek to relearn his computer skills.

“Here I can learn how to fix a computer and take it apart, rather than buying one at a computer store then spending $200."

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