Canadian non-profit pairs donated PCs with mentoring services

A new non-profit organization is promising to help underprivileged kids hop on the technology bandwagon by installing Internet-ready, refurbished, donated computers in their home.

Little Geeks is comprised of the children getting the computers (the titular Little Geeks), and the Big Geek Squad, which includes Repair Geeks, who refurbish the donated computers that come from Donor Geeks, and the Mentor Geeks, who go into the child’s home to set up the computer.

Little Geeks founder and IT journalist Andy Walker said he is someone who knows the value of being given a computer at a young age — he was inspired to start Little Geeks after reflecting on the fact that his father’s scraping together a couple thousand dollars to give him a computer to use during college enabled him to become who he is today. “Getting a computer changed my life, and giving computers to children allows them to see possibility,” said Walker.

In addition to their computer, the children will be provided with a free Internet connection for a year, courtesy of a large telecommunications company’s $60,000 donation. Walker said he hopes that they will be able to gather a coalition of sponsors who can ensure that the children have Internet access for the duration of their participation in the program.

Walker’s goal is to give away 500 computers in the GTA over the next three months, and a total of 3,000 over 2007. Post-pilot, he hopes to spread the program nationally, to the States, and internationally (he already has people in Michigan and Australia who want to start their own Little Geeks). Walker feels that making sure that children have at-home access to a computer and the Internet is essential. Said Walker: “There are other programs that donate to schools and libraries, but without a computer at home, children can’t do their homework or research. They’ve been disconnected.”

Walker is trying to solicit donations by raising awareness through his radio and television appearances, blog, Web site, podcasts, and among his network of IT industry contacts. The offers are already coming in, he said.

Little Geeks takes anything Pentium 3500 or above (or its Mac equivalent), and then the Repair Geeks — who offer a commitment of 10 machines in a 90-day period, and can work from home or in the office space — get to work, using a military-grade reformatter to wipe the hard drive (ensuring that the Donor Geek’s privacy remains intact), and then installing educational software and internet security tools. Even the old-timers are useful — in exchange for ancient computers, Little Geeks gets cash from Dominion Business, which repurposes computer parts and recycles the scant three per cent it can’t salvage.

Walker doesn’t want to just hand off the machine to the kids, though. That’s where the mentoring comes in. Before being allowed to set up a computer in a child’s home, Mentor Geeks — who, to ensure optimal people skills, will be culled from marketing and tech support types with a technological background — must submit a police check, undergo a rigorous screening process, and then be trained in how best to communicate with children. But their duties don’t end with installation.

“Without any guidance, (giving a computer to a child) is irresponsible. You have to educate them about risk, as the computer is a very potent tool,” said Walker. Thus, during installation, the Mentor Geek gives the children and their family an educational talk about computer and Internet use, and remains reachable for ongoing tech support (all Mentor Geeks sign up for a six-month commitment).

Ideally, said Walker, he’d like to see this technological mentoring take place within a framework of general life mentoring. Little Geeks will start by pairing with national agencies, but, “eventually, we will be developing relationships with community-based organizations who have daily contact with these children and can see what the needs are locally, and help provide us with clients. Access to Internet is becoming a human right, and the digital divide is very real. We’re filling that gap.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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