Bridging the digital divide: Low-income families enjoy cast-off PCs

Habitat for Humanity teams up with an IT asset recovery firm to put PCs in the homes of families who need them

Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity has been helping low-income families across the U.S. build and buy affordable homes to help improve their lives and futures. But today, despite having nice bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and the rest, most of Habitat's houses are missing an essential 21st century tool that's likely present in the homes of most middle- and upper-income families -- a computer where family members can do schoolwork, learn, pay bills and expand their horizons.

For many low-income families, just having a nice place to live is the answer to a lot of prayers, but E.J. Thomas, CEO of the Habitat chapter in Columbus, Ohio, still didn't like the idea of a home without a computer.

"Helping these families to be successful involves a lot of different things," Thomas says. "Helping the children of those families to bridge the digital divide is hugely important."

Thomas wanted to find a way to get computers into the homes Habitat builds. "Imagine a child who has never been exposed to computers and who is all at once thrust into a new environment in school that is intimidating," he says. "Without having a computer at home, they are so far behind. Trying to look at the world through their eyes is what gave us the drive to do something."

And last year that "drive to do something" led Habitat to partner with Redemtech Inc., a Columbus-based IT asset recovery business that helps large companies recycle or resell their old computer equipment.

The three- or four-year-old computers that are cast aside as businesses cycle through IT "refreshes" often have plenty of life left in them. So Habitat and Redemtech now refurbish some of those pre-owned machines, equip them with licensed Microsoft Windows and Office software, and distribute them to Habitat families who applied for them.

And that's not all. The program also includes professional setup of the PCs, 90 days of tech support and training to make sure the family members know how to use their new computers.

"We don't just call everybody and say, 'Come in and get your computer,'" Thomas says. "The requirements are for people to come in and take some classes so we can be sure it's going to be used. We don't want it to be a paperweight."

After a successful pilot project last year, the Columbus Habitat chapter and Redemtech have formalized the program and now are helping to expand it to other Habitat chapters across the nation.

So far, about 75 Habitat families in the Columbus area have received free PCs, says Thomas.

What's currently not included is Internet access; the families have to obtain that on their own. However, Thomas says that Habitat is trying to find services through which the families can receive free or low-cost Internet connections.

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