Free Geek helps close digital divide
Adelle Pomeroy, the digital inclusion manager at Free Geek, has a goal: She wants to demystify technology so people recognize that computers are not magical. She particularly wants to reach members of the community who don't have a computer or don't have access to a computer.
"The internet is now a basic utility; it is not an option anymore," she said.
"We view the internet like electricity, and Free Geek provides the lightbulbs," Pomeroy said.
Free Geek, located at 1731 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland, is a nonprofit community organization that sustainably reuses technology, enables digital access, and provides education that empowers people to realize their potential.
One of the programs offered by Free Geek is Plug into Portland, which serves students in grades K-12 in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. Students in the program are eligible to receive a free computer, basic computer skills training, and technical support after completing 24 hours of voluntary community service.
A lot of those students already are doing community service at their schools, so they just need to apply, keep track of their hours, and take a Saturday morning class. Then they are eligible to pick up their laptop or desktop computer.
Students also can volunteer at Free Geek to earn a free computer.
Access to technology
"We want students to come and take the free classes so they learn the different parts of a computer," Pomeroy said.
"They are also encouraged to take the computer apart and put it back together again; we want them to learn what hardware and software look like in a safe way," she added.
Some of the students will play games on their new computers, but the vast majority will use the new technology to do their homework.
Statistics show that "70 percent of teachers assign computer homework that requires a digital device," said Ingrid Dos Santos, digital inclusion program associate who teaches some of the classes.
"Lack of access is a barrier; we need to get these kids doing work right away," Dos Santos said, adding that she has heard about students trying to write essays on their phones.
Getting a free computer "has a direct impact on people's lives," she said.
Dos Santos noted that students from metro-area schools received free computers in 2019, including two from Clackamas County.
A 10th grader at Clackamas Middle College volunteered for Follow the Star, attended Free Geek's Getting Started class, and received a computer on June 19. A fourth grader at Verne A. Duncan Elementary School volunteered at his school helping one of his teachers, attended the Getting Started class, and received his computer on June 1.
Free Geek also offers free classes to the entire community, with topics like basic skills, digital privacy and security, hardware and creative media and programming.
"All community members need to be part of the new technology in the future," Pomeroy said.
The Free Geek site itself "functions as a digital inclusion program," she said, adding that Free Geek is exploring off-site programs for adults "where we teach them and bring the computers to them. We also offer a Getting Started class in Spanish once a month."
Students and community members can do research in the computer library and anyone can come in and buy computers at reduced rates, she said.
At the moment, the digital inclusion program depends on monetary contributions and donations of computers from corporations.
"Money is what helps run our program. When the day comes when we have to buy computers that will be a turning point. Our model will have to change," Pomeroy said.
She is hoping that members of the community who work for an organization that recycles its technology or sells to an e-cycler will look into donating the computers to Free Geek instead.
Pomeroy noted that it is important that all the students be given computers that look exactly the same because "we want them to focus on learning the technology, not looking at what the student next to them is using."
She added, "We tell students this is for you — it's yours. So we foster a sense of ownership."
Pomeroy also noted that Free Geek has a secure data area where all donated devices are wiped to National Institute of Standards and Technology standards.
She added that all of Free Geek's programs represent more than just giving someone a free computer.
Handing people a computer, without educating them about the technology and teaching them how to access the internet, is like handing them a brick, she said.
Pomeroy added, "Our primary goal is to better connect the community to the internet."
Digital future is here
What: Free Geek's Plug into Portland program rewards community service with a free laptop and computer classes
Where: 1731 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland
More: freegeek.org/plugintoportland for more information about this program or freegeek.org to learn about the nonprofit or make a donation.
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