Craig Brandhorst 2015-09-12 10:03:01
Salem Lions in South Carolina hunker down in a cave-like room to refurbish computers for needy students, unfairly hampered by not being able to afford one. Two hundred bucks. That was the initial request. When Jim Jacques told his Salem Lions Club in 2004 of his novel plan to refurbish discarded computers to be given to underprivileged youth, a couple hundred bucks seemed like more than enough. It wouldn’t cost much, he figured, to clean up a few junked CPUs, load them with basic educational software and distribute them to a few children in need. The need definitely existed. Located in a rural corner of the Upstate region of South Carolina, just below the Blue Ridge Mountains, Oconee County attracts plenty of upper middle-class retirees who come to the foothills for the mild weather and scenic beauty, but the region is also home to some of the worst poverty in the state. The county’s unemployment rate in 2004 was 7.4 percent and climbing. After the financial collapse in the fall of 2008, it peaked at 13.3 percent and didn’t fall to single digits until 2012. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the club’s philanthropic effort didn’t just catch on. It went positively viral after one school, Keowee Elementary, took an interest. Word of mouth spread among parents at church, at Little League ball fields, in line at the Bi-Lo supermarket: “Did you know your kid can get a free computer through the Lions club?” “What’s the catch?” “No catch, you just have to qualify.” To keep up, Jacques and his fellow Lions reached out to area businesses, applied for grants and recruited non-Lions with technical expertise as additional volunteers. They also levied the support of the superintendent of the School District of Oconee County, who gave them the basement of the old Walhalla High School to use as a volunteer center and storage facility. “We started out really small,” says Lion Ray Bramble, who has been a part of the initiative from day one and who took the reins after health issues led Jacques to step down. “Nobody had any idea we would climb to the point where we are now.” Just what point has the once-humble Computers for Kids program reached? Over the past 11 years, it has provided approximately 3,700 refurbished computers to elementary and high school kids as well as to GED students throughout the area, which is kind of funny, considering that Computers for Kids began as a way to address an altogether different problem. “It started out as an environmental issue,” says Bramble. “At that time, we didn’t have recycling in this part of the Upstate, so when Jim saw all this electronic equipment sitting in the dumpsters—monitors, computers, keyboards, everything—he tried to figure out, ‘What can I do to keep these things from going into the landfills?’” That’s hardly a question anymore. Visiting the Computers for Kids headquarters, which the club now rents for $1 a year from a local 501(c)3 that bought the downtown Walhalla school from the school district, it can seem like every defunct desktop PC in Oconee County winds up in their laps. Thanks to donations from companies such as Michelin Tires of Greenville, which gave the group its first large-scale donation, totaling more than 1,300 computers, and the School District of Oconee County, which donated its old machines when it upgraded to newer models three years ago, the basement space is stacked wall-to-wall with CPUs, monitors, hard drives, keyboards, you name it. If a component is beyond repair, Lions and volunteers tear it down and reuse what they can in other machines. What they can’t use they sell in bulk to a recycling center in nearby Livonia, Georgia. After all, when operating a charitable organization on a shoestring budget, every penny counts. “You know keyboards have gold in them. Not much, but some,” says Lion Dee Brosnan, a retired sales rep from the railroad industry who, like Bramble, has been involved from the get-go. “We get about 10 cents per pound for keyboards. Last time we went to the recycling center we had about 4,000 pounds of stuff and we got about $1,300 for it. That all goes back into the program.” Meanwhile, thanks to a deal with Microsoft’s Registered Refurbishing program, Computers for Kids is able to put Windows 7 on computers destined for high school and GED students for $7 a copy. Computers earmarked for elementary and middle school kids get loaded with a free software package. Cleaning up all that hardware and installing all that software gives the program’s 15 volunteers, many of whom come in each Monday year-round, plenty to do. In fact, the group averages about 2,300 volunteer hours a year. “That’s a lot of hours,” says Bramble. “We shut down for the major holidays, and that’s it. But you see some of these kids getting these computers and how happy they are—if that doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing’s going to.” Brosnan agrees. As the self-described “morning man,” he spends the first half of each Monday out front, meaning he gets to hand out the refurbished machines when kids show up waving authorization sheets from their schools. “The satisfaction of helping children makes it all worthwhile,” he says. “You see these little moppets come bouncing in here with Mom, and they’re going, ‘That’s my computer! I got a computer!’ They are so excited.” Numerous studies have shown that having a computer available for home use provides a significant advantage in school achievement and job opportunities. If you don’t believe a second-hand computer can have such a positive effect, stop by Westminster Elementary some afternoon after recess. Nearly 65 percent of the students at the small rural school near the South Carolina-Georgia state line qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which means their parents don’t typically have the money to buy high-ticket items, no matter how much they might want to. “We do the backpack for kids program,” says computer science teacher and 32-year public education veteran Debbie Levasseur. “We send home food so they have something to eat over the weekend, so you can imagine when they hear they’re getting a computer just how excited they are— ‘It’s mine? I get to take it home with me?’” In fact, when the fourth- and fifth-graders at Westminster learn that a reporter is coming to campus to do a story on the free computer program, they clamor for a chance to talk. And while they exhibit the usual pre-adolescent shyness— manifested mostly in giggles, especially among the fourth-grade girls—it’s obvious just how much the program means, not just to their academic success but to their happiness. Take best friends Jasmine Guthrie and Aaron Shed in fifth grade. “I like going on the Internet, but the best thing is being able to do PowerPoint,” says Jasmine, who calls math and science her favorite subjects. “I do a lot of PowerPoints for extra credit, like I did one for science class about cell biology. And sometimes I just do them for fun.” Aaron also claims that math is his favorite subject. “Well, math and computer science,” he says with a grin when called out by Levasseur. But his own favorite research project wasn’t about either. It was about U.S. history. “I did a PowerPoint in January for social studies on westward expansion,” he says. “It was about when the Americans settled out west, the wagon trains and the transcontinental railroad. That was really fun.” The other students chime in, reporting their own experiences with the free Lions club computers. One uses free software to paint horses and snowmen, another plays math games, a third practices her typing. “It means a lot just for them to get comfortable with the computer,” says Levasseur. “And then the parents are relieved that there’s something they can give their kids that otherwise they couldn’t afford.” Chashe Hunnicutt, for example, wanted to buy her daughter Annmarie a computer as a combined Christmas and-birthday present two years ago, when Annmarie was in second grade. But then Hunnicutt was laid off from her job at the county tax assessor’s office. Her big surprise had to take a backseat. “So then we got a letter from the school that said our daughter was eligible to get a computer from the Lions club,” she says. “My husband and I went back and forth. Was it really something we wanted to do? But we knew the Lions were a very reputable organization so we finally decided to go see what it was all about.” What it was all about, she discovered, was simple, honest philanthropy—a bunch of people donating their time so that a bunch of kids don’t get left behind. “The people when we went to get the computer were just over-the-top nice,” Hunnicutt says. “They let my daughter pick what kind of monitor she wanted, so I think she felt like she had some ownership. Then they talked to her about the programs they had already put on there and what she could do with the computer once she got home.” And that was only the beginning. Over the next two years Annmarie didn’t just take to the computer; she became hooked, particularly by the math games. “It made it so that she wanted to do better; she wanted to get to 100 points,” says Hunnicutt. “She’s in fourth grade now, and I strongly believe that being able to do those math games is one reason she tested into the gifted program for math this year.” Back at the volunteer center, Bramble loves to hear individual stories like the Hunnicutts’, but he and the rest of the volunteers are ultimately more focused on the bigger picture. “You know, we saw a need out in the community and we decided to do something about it,” he says. “And stop to think about it. If you don’t have a computer or computer skills, you’re not going to make it in this world today; there’s no way.” And so they continue to plug away, week after week. During the school year the Lions and volunteers complete approximately a dozen refurbishments each Monday, even when winter temperatures in the unheated school basement drop to uncomfortable levels. In the summer, cooled by a single donated window unit air conditioner, they get ready for the next wave of requests come fall. It’s a lot of work, but no one’s complaining. “This project was actually one of the reasons I got involved with the Lions in the first place,” says Salem club secretary Ernie Mayberry, who joined the Lions at the invitation of his Keowee Key neighbor George Blanchard in 2004. “I just like the idea of helping these kids become computer literate.” A retired electrical engineer with computer experience dating back to the days of main frames and punch cards, Mayberry now spends his volunteer hours in the windowless area referred to as “the geek room,” where he performs some of the more technical repairs. In his spare time he plays tennis. Asked if he wouldn’t rather be out hitting balls, though, he just shrugs. “Hey, I’m good. Most of us only spend four or five hours in here a week,” he says. “I’m retired. I can play tennis four days a week. I can come do this for one.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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