Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Creating Computers for Classrooms

Author: Nia Ujamaa, Center for Media & Community | November 1st, 2005

Pat Furr, founder of Computers for Classrooms (CFC), is angered by the suggestion that there is no longer a gap between those who have access to computers and those who do not. “People think [the gap is closing] because they can buy computers, but a family on welfare with ten kids still can’t afford that. $400 is still unreachable.”

Furr was on her way to deliver a computer to a Hmong family. She doesn’t usually deliver computers to homes, not even for the Computers for Families program, which grew out of CFC. But this family had no other means of obtaining her open-ended gift. “They have no car to pick up the computer, a house full of kids and it's summer, so no school,” she explained. Furr is committed to going the extra mile when it comes to bringing technologically underserved communities up to speed. “I think we need to get more computers in the homes to deal with [the digital divide]…I’m particularly interested in people being able to use the Internet. That’s having an encyclopedia in your home, and everybody having the same playing field.”

Starting out in the limited space of her living room in 1992, Pat Furr began Computers for Classrooms by refurbishing computers to give away to schools in northern California’s Chico Unified School District (CUSD). Computers for Classrooms is now a successful, volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization with a two-tiered motive: getting more computers into the classrooms and out of the landfills. The organization now benefits schools outside of CUSD, as well as other non-profit organizations, and includes individuals and families that cannot afford to purchase computers. Furr is always on the hunt for new markets that fit under the Microsoft guidelines for licensing, and she’s confident she can find them.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have computers, but now those families that don’t have computers are at a disadvantage and I want to change that,” said Furr. She relies heavily on volunteers to make the program work for families. Recruiting volunteers has never been a problem, thanks to a great incentive: anyone willing to volunteer 50 hours of their time leaves with a computer and the experience to maintain it. Some volunteers don’t leave at all, instead remaining with the program for years and mentoring other volunteers. The short- and long-term benefits of the volunteer experience are limitless. “Kids are building computers on their own, and the information they learn is empowering,” says Furr. Individuals unable to donate their time can also receive a free computer for a $60 set-up fee, but the training and experience of the volunteer program are priceless for some.

Furr proudly described a Hispanic woman in her early- to mid-forties who volunteered with the program. She told Furr that her computer skills have earned her respect from her family members. Prior to her work as a volunteer for the program, the woman’s family “called her stupid.” Now that she is able to instruct others interested in new media, she is viewed as an educator. She has “a whole new [role] within her family,” Furr said. Another volunteer was a construction worker before assisting with the program. He is now earning an estimated $100 an hour for Cisco Systems. “[He] started out with the equipment that he got here. Now he’s getting calls from Yahoo.” It is clear that Furr is excited about the success of this dynamic program. She cites the deaf students in the CFC program who are now able to express themselves and connect with others using a new medium. Furr finds it tremendously satisfying to expand the horizons of her volunteers through the simple act of teaching them to email.

Furr’s circle of influence is even broader than the volunteers that she recruits. Numerous children are able to gain much-needed access to technology through CFC. Donating any number of computers, from one to an entire lab, CFC has placed over 14,000 computers in schools in 26 counties. The project continues to grow. In June, CFC moved into a new warehouse that can facilitate a more efficient refurbishing process. Before moving, CFC was refurbishing and donating about 2,400 computers a year. “I won’t be surprised if figures go up,” said Furr.

Last year CFC was one of only 5 state-approved computer refurbishers. In 2002, CFC refurbished 6,000 computers from state surplus. State donations used to be CFC’s primary source for computer donations, but these donations have fallen off. Older computers are now handed down to new employees, creating less of a surplus in CFC’s warehouse. CFC is now collecting the computers once used in schools to refurbish as family computers.

“There are 5.5 students for every computer [in schools in which 81% – 100% of the students are eligible for free and reduced priced lunches],” Furr says. “Computer access is terrible, our public library has 10 computers and only a 30 minute limit.” In areas where 0 – 20% of the students that are eligible for free lunches, the student to computer ratio increases to 4.63 students per computer. Patt Furr clearly has her work cut out for her. These statistics will serve as Pat Furr’s motivation as she makes the computer delivery to the Hmong family this evening and provides countless computers to schools and families this summer.

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