Monday, May 09, 2005

"At computer workshop, children play for keeps"

The Daily Advertiser carries a short feel-good story today on a small project (in relation to the need) to bring used computers to underserved Lafayette kids. I was there yesterday (with some other volunteers) and the program is really a very good one. The idea is a great one: rescue good computers destined for the landfill and get them into the hands of kids who can use them. The program run by Je'Nelle Chargois and Don Thibodaux under the auspices of the Muliticultural Arts Program (a local nonprofit) collects computers, checks them out, strips them down to components and bare hard drives and challenges the kids that come to learn what the parts are, put the computer back together and install the necessary software from scratch. If you complete the intensive two-day program you go home with a computer of your own...and a different appreciation for what lies behind your everyday experience of sitting down in front of your machine.

It's the sort of program that we need several dozen more of...and all that is really required is to put the perfectly good computers that are being replaced on schedule by businesses together with volunteer skills and a few good organizers like the folks who run this program. Acadiana has all the pieces--perfectly usable computers go to the landfill daily, we have more than our share of good-hearted tech types, and plenty of local organizations are begging for these sorts of programs and would be happy to host them if they could get the pieces together.

That all that doesn't come together more often and more easily is a real shame.

Part of the story about the event doesn't make it into the article: yesterday almost didn't happen, or at least in not as successful a form as actually took place. Je'Nelle Chargois spent part of last week scouring the community looking for the last nine three gig hard drives necessary to bring the twenty-nine computers for the anticipated crowd up to speed. As of last Thursday Goodwill had scrounged up two for her project but folks were still looking for the last seven. By happenstance, Chargois—acting in her role as the head of the local NAACP—had a meeting scheduled with Lafayette Coming Together (LCT), to discuss the local fiber initiative. Toward the end of a long discussion the membership raised the question of developing concrete programs that would address the digital divide and asked her advice on what sorts of programs might prove valuable.

She responded with a description of her computer-rebuilding program...and a side comment on the difficulty of finding adequate equipment and volunteers. A couple of members volunteered to show up and expressed the thought that those drives had to be out there. We promised to send out an email to our group email list and see what we could turn up both in terms of drives and volunteers. That email to the group resulted in several members sending emails to lists they belonged to ranging from TechSouth to the Lafayette Chamber. The response from the community was great. One of the LCT folks volunteered to receive phone calls and emails on Friday and started scheduling volunteers. In short order we had 10 volunteers from both the LCT membership and the good folks who'd read about it somewhere out in the land of email. Even better, Home Bank called with the donation of 10 Pentium IIs and about 30 Pentium ones. The Pentium IIs were loaded with multiple six gig hard drives...The project was set to roll.

It happened over the Saturday and Sunday of Mother's day weekend just past. The students really lit up when they got to sit down in front of a disassembled computer that was spread out on a cafeteria table that was their station. At the height of the activity we had one adult to every two students and that worked really well. As a former teacher I was especially impressed by the "teacherliness" of the volunteers. They picked up on the emphasis in the introductory lecture about the way things fit one way and only one way and led the students through some hands-on practice in installing boards. In short order the students were forging ahead of instruction. And, mostly, getting it right.

A good experience for all involved...and a model for how we can all come together.

—In that vein, one of the volunteers that first morning was motivated by the experience to build an Acadiana tech community website which has as a major function trying to put together events like this one and volunteers from the tech community. If you've got an event (or an idea for an event) that needs volunteers or if you think this sounds like a worthwhile way to spend some time, head over to and start looking for kindred souls.

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