The concept is simple, really. Hire a handful of staff members, pay them the same hourly figure from the top down, train volunteers to run the business and work solely with donated electronic items to make them reusable or recyclable. In the process, teach volunteers how the business works and how to rebuild computers, allowing them to adopt a computer after 24 hours of volunteer service, giving them on-the-job training, as well as a social outlet. The result of the effort keeps harmful products out of landfills and enables schools and groups who desperately need computers to receive them at no cost. Last, but not least, make it all a democracy so volunteers and employees can participate in the direction of the collective.
Such is the way of Free Geek, a nonprofit technology recycling center in Portland, Oregon, leading the revolution in technology waste management. People donate their unwanted gizmos, ranging from computers to VCRs (excluding TVs and very few other items), then Free Geek volunteers rebuild the items to reuse, or safely deconstruct them to be recycled. Since its inception, Free Geek has refurbished approximately 6,000 computers using 5,000 volunteers and has recycled 1,000 tons of material, keeping it out of landfills. Just this month, they celebrated taking in their 300,000th donated gizmo.
Phil Sano, known as Reverend Phil, is one of the charismatic volunteers that lead daily tours for visitors. Rev. Phil has been volunteering for Free Geek for over five years. ?Free Geek is trying to solve the big problem with computers, ? says Rev. Phil. ?We see there as being two huge (problems). One of which is that there are way too many. 137,000 (computers) go obsolete every day in the United States. So, there are all of those folks who have plenty. The other problem, is that some people don?t have access to computers as much as they want. If you look around, you can tell that there are a lot of people that don?t know as much as they?d like to, or they try to learn, but they don?t know where to go. They?re expensive and you can spend a lot of time and not get anywhere. So, basically, we solve the two problems by pointing them at each other, saying ?Give us your tons of compu-detritus and bring us your herds of geek strength for a better future.? Knock them together and sure enough, they will solve each other.?
Free Geek volunteers are a part of one of two programs, the Adoption Program or the Build Program. The Adoption Program gives each person, after 24 hours of volunteer service, a FreekBox, consisting of a rebuilt computer running Linux, as well as basic software, a monitor, keyboard, mouse, one year of tech support and classes on how to use it all. For the Build Program, which takes about 100 hours, volunteers build five computers and get to keep the sixth one, leaning more towards an educational focus.
?The first day that Free Geek started was on Earth Day 2000?, says Oso Martin, Free Geek founder and Outreach Coordinator. Martin, a young, retired architect, had a hand in coordinating the overall Earth Day Celebration at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland and also had a booth at the event to introduce the organization to the public. They handed out t-shirts and brochures and tried to get a feel for a need in the community. 35 people signed up that day to earn a free computer by volunteering and 75 people signed up just to help out.
Four months later, according to Martin, the funder that was helping to get Free Geek off the ground, Jim Deibele, cut them a check for $25,000. Initially, they received $10,000 from Deibele to get a board of directors together and organize the nonprofit. The additional $25,000 gave them the opportunity to secure a space in which to work. ?Once we got the space, I e-mailed everybody on the help list and said ?O.K., remember that thing you signed up for four months ago? We?re doin? it! We?ll have a meeting next week.?
About half a dozen people showed up to the first meeting. It was in that meeting that they decided to go with Linux. ?Unbelievably, everybody that showed up to volunteer at that meeting was a Linux guy, ? says Martin. That core group, the longest running group of individuals that have been working with the organization, are known fondly as the Administers of Systems and Security (ASS).
Early on, several businessmen Martin consulted said that there was absolutely no way to run a secure, sophisticated network with volunteer help only — that they must be paid the market rate. ?And I now say to them, ?Ha ha! Our network is rock solid, considering it?s built on crappy old hardware.??
?The year that we decided to do this was probably the earliest year it could possibly happen. The graphical user interface for Linux only really came into existence in 1997,? says Martin. ?So, it had three years to get to the point where we were ready to start giving the computers away – doing the proverbial ?give a computer to grandma? as a test of usability. After five and a half years, we have been giving away Linux desktop computers to people who have never used computers before with a very, very high success rate of acceptance and usability.?
According to Martin, in January 2001, Portland daily newspaper, The Oregonian, wrote an article about Free Geek and featured it in their Sunday edition. ?They put a little sidebar in there that said ?Free Computers? and our name and address. There was a mob outside our door the following Monday. We had one phone line. In the time it took to hear all of the messages that had been left, the phone message box would fill up with messages again. 250 people signed up in a three-day period. From that moment on, we were busy. Still, every morning there?s a line out front. And every evening, we?re kicking people out. People love it there. They can?t get enough of it.?
Upon first entering the Free Geek warehouse, you are immediately aware of the buzzing hive of activity that happens daily. Each room is a mass of electronics that is constantly in transition. Men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes are walking around, recycling parts, rebuilding computers, talking shop, working on their favorite areas of expertise, training others or taking a break and playing online. The recycling room has stations for recycling circuit boards, plastic, motors, drives, power supplies, cords, ribbons, motors, wires, as well as giant, five-foot cardboard boxes on palettes quickly being filled and moved out into the loading dock for distribution. ?That?s why it looks like this,? said Matthew Harris, Reuse Coordinator. ?All that you see here will be gone in about 2 weeks. In the meantime, we take in about 50 computers and 50 monitors every day.?
Once refurbished, tested and ready to go out, computers not used in the Adoption Program are donated to nonprofits, social change organizations, and most recently, the Gulu University Library in Uganda, Africa, as part of Free Geek?s Hardware Grant program. Free Geek?s Thrift Store also allows the public to browse for a range of items from connectors to record players to antique hard drives for cheap.
For more information about volunteering your time, donating unwanted gizmos or applying for a grant, visit http://www.freegeek.org/ or call 503-232-9350.
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