Technology for the people: Chicago nonprofit gives computers in exchange for effort

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If you’re part of the 40 percent of Chicagoans who don’t have regular internet access, you have a few options. Shell out big bucks for a computer and an Internet connection. No money? Well, you can wait in line at your local library or maybe search out a neighborhood computer lab.

But Chicagoan David Eads has a problem with those options. A computer in a lab is nice, but it’s no way to master one.

“You learn computers by having them their home,” Eads says. “You learn computers by learning to break them and then fix[ing] them.”

And so Eads and some fellow computer nerd friends set out to narrow that digital divide in perhaps the most practical of way: find old computer parts, teach people to fix them into a working computer and let them have it.

It’s called FreeGeek Chicago, and it’s changing the kind of access city residents have to computers and even changing the stereotype of who’s a computer nerd.

And they can’t wait to expand.

Janet Mitts found her passion for computers at FreeGeek Chicago. She visited the basement workshop in Logan Square three years ago after taking a computer class in her neighborhood. Ever since, she’s been coming a few times a week, starting with FreeGeek’s 24-hour volunteer course and eventually becoming a staff member.

“Now, I do a lot of troubleshooting,” she says, smiling. “I spend a lot of time at the install table, too.”

Whatever the picture of Janet is in your mind right now, throw it out the window. She’s a retired, 66-year-old African American. She goes to church and has two grown sons. And last week, she fixed her hairstylist’s laptop.

While some people stay for just the initial 24-hour volunteer period required to earn a computer, she says more people end up staying–coming back to learn more about their machine, add new parts or learn how to fix it if it should break.

“I like seeing people come in and see how they react when they find out that they can get their own computer,” Mitts says. “They become so attached that they have to come back.”

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Although Eads helped found FreeGeek Chicago six years ago after hearing about a similar operation in Portland, Ore., he’s stayed because he, too, loves the community that’s been created around a lover for computers.

“This is like a dream come true for me,” he says. “There’s no where else I’d rather be.”

And more and more people are coming. In 2009, about 250 people got a free computer through their program. In 2010, that number tripled. And FreeGeek’s leadership hopes that they can keep that momentum going to open a South side location.

“The need is so great,” says Aaron Howze, FreeGeek’s only employee. “A lot of people don’t have the money and can’t afford to buy a computer these days, but they still need one.”

What would it take to start a South Side office? First, space. No-rent or low-rent space–nothing fancy required. FreeGeek’s current location was pleased to get heat and an actual door just this year. And, in addition, a community of people looking to get the organization off the ground in their neighborhood.

Their current location could use donations–particularly laptops. FreeGeek’s second mission is to help people recycle their old computers, making sure they don’t end up in landfills or on foreign shores. Volunteers salvage what they can and recycle the rest.

I visited the chilly basement workshop on a Sunday afternoon, right when new volunteers were lining up to come through orientation. As the day went on, more and more people came in, and pretty soon, the place was bustling. People gathered around tables, taking things apart and putting them back together. Teaching each other, talking and laughing. It’s probably one of the most diverse organizations I’ve seen, and a really cheerful one. No one seemed to mind the cold–there was too much to do, too much fun to be had.

And that’s the goal of FreeGeek, Eads says. To make computers wholly accessible to anybody who wants to learn.

“I always say, ‘We don’t care if you just got out of the joint or you
just got out or church, as long as you are willing to treat people with
respect,'” he says.

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