Bridging the divide
Chico-based nonprofit Computers for Classrooms gives old hardware new life and a new home
Juan Chavez speaks limited English and doesn’t understand computer lingo. Even spelling his name requires a rundown of the English alphabet to match the sounds to the correct letter. But the 17-year-old is confident he’ll master the alphabet through typing in no time.
For the first time since coming to America from Mexico six years ago, Chavez, the eldest son of a migrant farming family now living in Gerber, will have a computer of his own.
“I will be doing a lot of things,” said Chavez, a Red Bluff High School student. “The computer will help me in school and let me do better work.”
The Chavez family was one of about 100 Hispanic families participating in a Migrant Education program for Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties, each recently receiving a computer from a nonprofit program called Computers for Classrooms.
CFC helps lessen the digital divide experienced by low-income schools and families by providing them with refurbished computers. The program also helps the environment. Founder Pat Furr is a strong believer that, in the mantra of “reduce, reuse and recycle,” reuse should always come before recycle.
“We’re all trying to get more proactive and go out and really help people … but this is really also about sustainability,” she said. “It’s just getting a lot more use out of [a computer] instead of having to go get a new one.”
Computers of all conditions get donated to CFC. To encourage people to reuse before recycling, anyone who donates electronics can drop them off free of charge. The program will take nearly anything, from laptop and desktop computers to printers and fax machines, and just about all of it gets refurbished.
Anything that’s not reusable gets recycled properly at WTP, a state-certified e-waste recycler in Orland. There, people take apart the unwanted monitors, separating the plastic, tubes, copper and other parts that might otherwise end up in landfills. Cathode ray tubes in monitors that contain lead, mercury and other materials that are toxic to the environment are then sent to a smelter where they are crushed and reused.
Customers may not realize it, but they pay an up-front recycling fee when they buy monitors, televisions and other electronics. State-certified recyclers who destroy these end-of-life electronics are reimbursed from the retail tax.
One of the difficulties Furr faces when it comes to the program is that many people don’t think to donate their old hardware. Unfortunately, this eventually affects the environment because most electronics waste is handled improperly.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated about 2 million tons of e-waste in 2005. Of that, only 345,000 to 379,000 tons were recycled, meaning about 1.6 million tons of computers, laptops, televisions, cell phones and other electronics ended up in landfills. The agency estimates about two-thirds of those electronics were still in working condition.
Furr is disheartened to see so much waste, and has made it her mission to give the electronics a second life with those who can’t afford brand-new equipment. Many low-income families and schools are in desperate need of computers. California is ranked among the bottom three states as far as ratio of students to computers, she said.
“It’s horrible because you think of California and the Silicon Valley, and [you’d think] that we would have all the computers,” Furr said.
Furr started the all-volunteer program in 1991 to serve solely the Chico Unified School District, but CFC has grown substantially over the years. Nowadays, the program places about 5,000 computers in classrooms or homes all over the state each year. Clients who donate include individuals, public agencies and private organizations such as the Oakland Raiders football team.
When computers are donated, all the memory is wiped from the hard drives and a new operating system is installed. CFC is a certified Microsoft refurbisher, which allows it to install Windows on computers and sell them for discounted prices of $90 or $120, depending on the version.
Last month, Chavez and others received their computers for a special price of $60 thanks to a combined effort between the Migrant Education program and Butte College. Additionally, Chico Net, which provides dial-up Internet service for $9.95 a month, offered its service for a discounted rate of $8 to further help the families.
The computers come with a one-year warranty, something Furr said customers would never get anywhere else. Even better, the families are given rebates to attend classes designed to teach them to use the computers. For each class they attend, they will receive $10.
Furr believes strongly that everyone deserves equal access to information, so serving low-income families has become a passion. She has found her true calling in CFC, and hopes others see the many benefits of the program.
“I think it’s pretty criminal to destroy things that still have value and use, and could help our economy and our environment.”