New Life for Old Machines


In this land of fresh starts, computers too are finding a second life, often as fertile as their first. Second pairs of hands are tapping away on keyboards in classrooms throughout California. Spirited, sometimes loosely organized charities committed to sharing technology are sending computers, modems and printers to newsrooms, schools and rural hospitals in Mali, Jamaica and India.

Many of us are reluctant to give up our expensive machines, even long after we have replaced them with newer models. Although we may resent our computers’ all too quick obsolescence, innovative charities can take what to us is an annoyingly slow 400 series PC, refurbish it, give it away, and transform the efficiency of a rural Indian hospital or broaden the job prospects of an inner-city teenager.

Corporations in California alone take 1.5 million computers out of service each year. A 1991 Carnegie-Mellon University study warns that if we don’t donate or recycle our computers, more than 150 million PCs will clog U.S. landfills by 2005.


New laws, such as the 21st Century Classrooms Act, which took effect Jan. 1, make it a smart financial choice for companies to donate their computer equipment to K-12 schools.

A number of groups maintain Web sites where nonprofits and schools can post what equipment they need and list their own stock of donated equipment. The most helpful groups--which are always in search of techno-savvy volunteers--provide a warranty for their equipment and give away only computers that are in good condition.

Brendan Murphy, a financial reporter in New York, collects certain portable computers--the TRS80 sold by Radio Shack that runs on four AA batteries--and sends them to journalists in the West African nation of Mali. Now several dozen reporters at the Daily Bamako and the Agence Malienne de Presse are able to file their stories electronically, a luxury in a vast, impoverished country with rutted roads and few phone lines.

Murphy donated his own TRS80, standard issue for reporters in the 1980s, to a Malian journalist after a visit to Africa to give journalism workshops on economics and finance. So far, Murphy, in collaboration with the International Center for Journalists in Washington, has sent 60 computers to Mali. He intends to expand the program to provide refurbished Toshiba laptops as well as Radio Shack portables to print, radio and TV news organizations across West Africa.

At Jah-Net, former Peace Corps volunteer Cathy Jo Lee Gierky and a dozen friends send used computers, printers and the occasional vacationing computer expert to Jamaica. Volunteers in this informal network stay at the homes of Jamaican families for up to a month while they help install donated computers and share their skills with local teachers.

During Easter break in 1996, Mike Dare-Gentile, a New Jersey computer teacher, flew to Jamaica with his wife, two children and several refurbished computers. They stayed with a Jamaican family, hung out at the beach and toured Bob Marley’s home and mausoleum. Dare-Gentile also spent a few days showing teachers how to incorporate computers into their curriculum at Guanaboa Vale All Age School, a concrete building lit with bare bulbs and situated in the middle of a sugar cane field.


“The computers had such an impact,” Dare-Gentile said, “that many of the students’ parents now come to the school in the evenings so they can learn how to use them.”

Jah-Net volunteers persuaded Air Jamaica to transport the donated computers for a nominal fee and convinced Jamaican officials to waive customs duties. The group is seeking donations of computer equipment, money and software as well as volunteers with computer or teaching skills.

On a vastly different scale, the Detwiler Foundation in San Diego has demonstrated what is possible if corporations in California give schools even a fraction of the 1.5 million computers they take out of service each year. Since 1991, Detwiler has helped direct 37,000 computers to public and private K-12 schools across the state.

Several thousand of those computers are now in Los Angeles County schools. Among them are the 10 computers in use at Thomas Riley High School in Watts, a school for pregnant teenage girls. Yadira Martinez, who attended Riley High last year, said the computers meant a lot to her and her classmates.

“When girls my age are pregnant, people talk behind your back,” said Martinez, who is 18. “If you’re pregnant and a teenager, people tell you: ‘Your life is over. You don’t have a future.’ ”

Martinez said that because computers “represent the future,” the gift of the machines told her that someone did care about Riley High’s young women.


At first, Martinez said, she planned to quit high school. She avoided her peers and stayed at home. “I didn’t want people to see me pregnant.

But Martinez’s English teacher, Barbara Minton, asked each student to write a book about her life and her vision of her future.

“I had forgotten who I was before I was pregnant,” Martinez said. “Writing that book made me remember.”

The result: a 30-page story of her fears, hopes and dreams in a plastic purple binder that helped Martinez discover her resolve and courage.

“Before, I never would have thought of going to college,” she said. “I didn’t want to finish high school.” Last year, Martinez, a cashier at a supermarket near her home, gave birth to son Jesse. This month, she began classes at East Los Angeles College, where she plans to major in computer science.

Detwiler now serves as a national clearinghouse for technology donations to schools and nonprofits. In part, this is due to the financial help of companies like AT&T.; David Lenehan, a manager in AT&T;’s government affairs division in San Francisco, said companies spend billions training employees to use computers. In his view, programs promoting computer skills in the schools are a prudent investment.


The new desktop computers with Pentium processors purchased for his department in 1996 were replaced with faster computers 18 months later. Instead of being sold for scrap or sent to a landfill, the almost-new computers went to California classrooms.

The federal law that took effect Jan. 1 should encourage businesses to donate to K-12 schools computer equipment that is less than 2 years old. The 21st Century Classrooms Act allows qualifying businesses to deduct the computer’s full purchase price. Previously, the deduction was limited to the computer’s resale value, often a fraction of the original price.

The PRASAD Project, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes family health care, dental care and nutrition and education programs in India, Mexico and the United States, uses technology to improve the lives of people living in poverty. Donated computers will enable PRASAD to more easily track the medical histories of the more than 60,000 patients treated last year at their mobile hospital in rural Western India.

PRASAD also brings new and used computers to India to help run its eye camps, where about 40,000 villagers have received free treatment for eye disease such as cataract surgery, intra-ocular lens implants and prescription eyeglasses.

The rate at which companies now replace computers is “unbelievably short,” Lenehan said. It’s hard to avoid missing the wisdom, he said, of sharing our resources.


Gali Kronenberg is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Times. He can be reached at gali.kronenberg@



Recycling Resources

* Computer for Africa, Brendan Murphy, (212) 608-2150 or

* Jah-Net, Mike DareGentile, (609) 625-0343 or or

* Detwiler Foundation, (800) 939-6000 (drop-off sites are located across California) or

* The PRASAD Project, (914) 434-0376 or

* Share the Technology,