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December 10, 1995

Making computers
available to all

By Timothy C. Barmann

When Michael Page isn't at his full-time job as a machinist, he can probably be found in the chicken coop-turned-workshop next to his house in Jamestown.

Precariously stacked inside that cramped, slanted-roof shack are computers and parts - monitors, keyboards, cables, printers and cases - all in various stages of disrepair.

Page is trying to give the outdated machines new life. He is one of three partners in a non-profit agency called the Computer Literacy Exchange, a group that refurbishes donated computers and sells them to other non-profits and schools for a nominal fee.

The Computer Literacy Exchange is among several local organizations seeking donations of used computers and accessories. While most of these machines can't run the latest programs, they can still be used for basic tasks such as word processing and spreadsheet calculation, and even connecting to the Internet.

Page builds "new" computers Frankenstein-fashion by taking working parts from broken systems and piecing them together. He buys new parts for those he can't find used replacements for.

He said he came up with the idea for the Computer Literacy Exchange when his daughter, who was in the fifth grade, asked him for a computer. Page said he realized that schools, especially those serving low-income families, were falling short in educating students about computers - something he sees as a vital.

"If you don't start learning computers now, you might as well hang it up," he said.

Page said he thought it was unfair that those who already have the cards stacked against them don't have access to computers.

"A lot of these people are behind already - unemployed or on welfare," he said. "If they don't learn something about computers, they will just fall further and further behind the times."

Page started the organization in February with Richard Keenan, a part- time human resources manager and a consultant, who lives in Wakefield. State Sen. M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, is the group's secretary. All three are volunteers.

The organization received its non-profit status in October, Keenan said.

This past Friday, the group was to deliver five computers to the Newport Residents Council, an association of low-income housing tenants. Page said the computers - two Apples and three IBM compatibles - will be used for software training, to teach typing skills and to entertain children after school.

The Computer Literacy Exchange charges from $40 to about $250, depending on the computer system. Those fees reflect what the agency pays to repair and upgrade the computers. Keenan said the group is looking into soliciting corporate donations that would allow it to give computers away to groups who can't afford to pay.

Why does Page spend from 20 to 40 hours a week working with circuit boards, cables and disk drives in the workshop where his grandfather once raised chickens?

"To me, I saw a problem," he said. "I didn't see anyone doing anything about it. We can't just do nothing."

Job Link seeks help

There's an urgency in Ali Cabral's voice when he talks about his agency's need for donors of new or used computers.

He is co-founder of Job Link, a private, job-training and temporary employment agency in South Providence that places some 750 workers in jobs each week.

"We have got to get those computers into the South side," he said.

Cabral said he wants to expand Job Link's computer instruction program and add more training such as basic computer repair and getting onto the Internet.

"We have to get them up to speed," he said of his clients, many of whom come to his agency with few skills but a desire to work.

He sees the increasing popularity of computers widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

"What we have are two societies," Cabral said. "One that views computers as a necessity in one household. On the necessity list in the other household is food, rent and heat."

"So consequently, the younger generation that's coming up in the lower- income home, if they're not getting exposed to (computers) in the schools, then their chances of being exposed to a computer at home is very slim."

Cabral said they will take any IBM compatible computer that's a 286-class machine or higher, working or not.

AS220 computer lab

Shawn Wallace, who is managing director of AS220, an arts space in downtown Providence, is trying to put together a community computer lab with donated equipment.

"The primary mission of AS220," Wallace said, "is to provide a forum for anyone who wants to do something creative." The organization provides studio space and "unjuried" gallery space to artists.

Last year it added a community darkroom, and by early next year, it hopes to have the computer lab up and running.

Wallace said AS220 received a $10,000 grant from the Rhode Island School of Design through the Coalition for Community Development to build the computer lab. Most of that money will go into construction of the lab. Since there's no room at AS220's Empire Street location, Wallace said the group is looking at new locations to rent where the lab will be built.

"We want to create a funky environment for attracting talented computer people and artists," Wallace said.

The group's plan is to set up computer work stations that will serve different purposes. One, for example, will be a music station that will have a computer that can be connected to a musical instrument. Others might be connected to the Internet so users can participate in discussion groups.

He is soliciting just about any brand of computer or peripheral: Macintosh, IBM, Unix, software, modems and monitors, working or not.

The computer lab will be open to anyone who joins AS220 for a $25 yearly membership. Those who donate equipment will receive a free one-year membership.

How to donate

If you'd like to donate computer equipment, here's how to reach these agencies:

Your donation may be tax deductible if it's given to a non-profit organization. (Both the Computer Literacy Exchange and AS220 are non-profits; Job Link is not.) The IRS (800-829-3676) has printed general information about donating property in Publication 561.

If your gifts are worth more that $500, you'll have to submit Form 8283 along with your tax return. Donations that total more than $5,000 need to be appraised.

High-tech help

If you are a non-profit group looking for "high-tech assistance," a new group is being formed to give you answers or refer you to someone who can help.

Rhode Island Technology Assistance Project, or RITAP, is an advice and referral service, sponsored by the United Way and Jules Cohen, an assistant professor at Rhode Island College.

The group's mission is to help non-profits who are struggling with questions about how computers might help their organization, said William J. Allen, executive vice president for community services of the United Way.

To contact RITAP, call Cohen at 456-9550, or send e-mail to him at jcohen@grog.ric.edu.

Computer calendar

Dec. 11, 21 and 28 - BusinessOn, a Warwick Internet access provider, is holding weekly workshops for companies looking for answers about getting on the Internet. Cost is $10 per person or $15 per company, up to three people. Workshop fees can be applied to purchases. Seating is limited to 10. The 2- hour workshops begin at 1 p.m., at 1808 Elmwood Ave., Warwick. For reservations and more information, call 941-9795, or send e-mail to sysop@BusinessOn.com.

Dec. 12 - Paradox Users Forum of New England will meet at Roger Williams University, Route 136, Bristol, in the School of Business Bldg. #11, Rm. SB- 334, at 7 p.m. Donald Baffoni will discuss the dos and don'ts of Paradox database design. The group meets the second Tuesday of each month. For more information, call 738-9189, send e-mail to ecl@loa.com or see the group's Web site at http://www.loa.com/pufone/

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.