Computer club wins national service award Schools receive rebuilt computers

August 04, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Piles of dusty and outdated computer equipment are sprawled, stacked and stashed throughout a blocky warehouse nestled in an east Columbia office park. It seems an electronics graveyard.

But a watch-your-step tour through the hard drives, keyboards and monitors with Art Silverglate soon makes it clear that this is no micro-chip garbage heap.

"Some of this stuff I guess we'll have to trash eventually. But a lot of it will end up in schools in good working condition when we're through with it. I'd much rather see it there than in landfills," says Mr. Silverglate.

He is a member of the Columbia-Baltimore User Group, Inc., a computer club that has taken on repairing donated computer equipment as a community service project so it can be given to school programs.

The equipment in the warehouse has been donated by individuals and businesses, such as electronics giant Packard-Bell Corp. and DEC Computers, a computer store in Silver Spring.

Mr. Silverglate, an affable Columbia resident who works as a computer network specialist for Landover, is in many ways responsible for this electronics mess -- and obviously proud of it.

He has reason to be. The fledgling effort to recycle and repair the equipment, dubbed The Phoenix Project by the club, has recently won a national award for community service that came with a $15,000 grant.

The computer club was honored last month with a Recognizing Exceptional Achievement in Community Help, or REACH, award, sponsored by computer industry leaders, such as Apple and Microsoft. Specifically, The Phoenix Project was honored with The Microsoft Award for Social Welfare and Improvement.

The project was launched in concert with The National Cristina Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Connecticut. The foundation matches working, unused computer and other electronic equipment nationwide with training programs for the disabled and disadvantaged.

The main use for the grant money will be for a handbook which the National Cristina Foundation and the Columbia-Baltimore User Group plan to write.

The manual will show other computer clubs how to set up similar repair projects for the foundation.

"We want to preach to other user groups how to do this without reinventing the wheel," said Mr. Silverglate.

The handbook would include information ranging from how to encourage businesses to make donations to what tools are needed to make repairs.

"We see the [Columbia-Baltimore User Group] project as a model for how other computer clubs across the country can help us," said Yvette Marrin, president of the National Cristina Foundation, which has worked closely with the Maryland Department of Education since 1986 to match computer equipment with school and job technology training programs.

"If we can replicate what the Columbia-Baltimore User Group is doing elsewhere in the country it will significantly increase the equipment we are able to get into training programs," said Ms. Marrin.

Before Mr. Silverglate and company embarked on their efforts to rehabilitate computers that either were obsolete or just not working, the foundation could only use donations of computers and electronics that worked.

The National Cristina Foundation does not have technicians on its staff who can repair computer equipment.

But the efforts of Mr. Silverglate and the other volunteers are helping to broaden the foundation's abilities. And now companies that donate faulty equipment might be able to apply for the same tax write-offs that those which donate working equipment can apply for.

Volunteers recently have been repairing a large donation of computer equipment from Packard-Bell Corp., which arrived in April.

Though Packard-Bell was unsure how much of the equipment actually worked, the National Cristina Foundation accepted the donation because the organization was confident the local computer club could make the needed repairs. The foundation paid to have the donation shipped from a Wisconsin warehouse to Maryland, said Ms. Marrin, the foundation president.

Packard-Bell equipment repaired so far by the club has been moved into several training programs. For example, 18 computers are now being used in a dropout prevention program in Baltimore, while several others are helping special-education students in a Charles County high school improve their reading and writing skills.

Mr. Silverglate estimates that the computer club has fully rehabilitated about 70 computers so far.

He got hooked on starting the project while attending a micro-computer show in Las Vegas in November. At the show he heard a pitch from the National Cristina Foundation, which was looking for a group to start a computer repair project.

After a brief visit to the foundation's Baltimore warehouse Mr. Silverglate decided that much of the non-working equipment stored there could either be repaired or cannibalized for parts to make other computer equipment work.

He began rounding up volunteers to launch the effort, and the foundation enticed The Rouse Corp., a national development firm based in Columbia, to donate warehouse space.

* For more information on making donations, call The National Cristina Foundation at (800) 274-7846. To volunteer for the computer club project, call (410) 750-2435.

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