The success story called PCs for People began because Andy Elofson saw things differently. Or, more precisely, saw one teenager differently.
Elofson is a Mankato social worker. Back in 1998, he connected with a "troubled teen" who'd been kicked out of school for hacking into a computer. All Elofson saw was a teen with great computer skills. So he gave the kid a gently used computer he found under a stairwell at the Blue Earth County Government Center.
The teen did an about-face, getting up in the morning with enthusiasm. After a few months, the teen started designing Web pages for churches. "Why can't I make this magic work for someone else?" Elofson wondered.
Now, he wonders with some amusement, what he was thinking.
From that seemingly small gesture, Elofson founded PCs for People (www.pcsforpeople.org), a nonprofit that takes donated computers from businesses and individuals, refurbishes them and gives them to people who otherwise remain shut out of our big wired world.
From 30 donated computers in 1998, to 5,000 a decade later, the inventory grew and grew. The 15,000th computer was given away this year.
Nearly 80 percent of families and individuals served by PCs for People have never had a home computer, Elofson said. Recipients are typically people with disabilities, or on fixed incomes or elderly. Many rely on a library for computer use, but may have to wait hours for access.
"It's a reality you and I don't live," said Elofson, a father of four, who made one of his regular trips to his St. Paul warehouse this week. The nonprofit also has an office in Mankato.
"People take the bus to us," Elofson said. "Single moms going back to school start crying that they could have this good fortune."
Recipients, who must arrange their own Internet service, make a donation when they can, from $30 for older computers to $50 for newer ones.
Still, the nonprofit gave away 700 free computers last year in the Twin Cities alone.
Their work is nowhere near done. In 2012, the digital divide in Minnesota remains big and stubborn.
About one in four rural households has no working computer, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the Blandin Foundation. The report found no significant growth in computer ownership among this demographic since 2007, suggesting a troubling plateau in adopting new technology.
The divide is deep in urban areas, too. A 2012 Community Technology Survey conducted by the city of Minneapolis reported that 82 percent of city households have computers with Internet access. But only 57 percent of residents of the Phillips neighborhood do, as do 65 percent of residents on the Near North Side. One-fourth of African-Americans said they don't have Internet access at home, the report found.
This is problematic for many reasons. Job applications are now commonly done online. Schools use online tools regularly to communicate with families. Even health care providers are connecting with patients online.
"The demand [for computers] always amazes me," said Casey Sorensen, PCs for People's executive director. "They say, 'My friend, my social worker, my job coach, told me to come in.' They can make a donation or not, but they walk out with a computer."
Sorensen came on board in 2007, with the task of distributing 300 donated computers. He figured that would take him a year, but the computers were gone in a month, "with 1,000 names on the waiting list."
Two years ago, the organization moved from 1,800 square feet to their current 11,000-square-foot St. Paul warehouse. They've grown from one full-timer to five, some coming to them through a Ramsey County job-training program.
The warehouse is stacked high with computers, monitors, keyboards and printers in various stages of usability. One secure room is reserved for data-wiping, many areas for refurbishing, another room for recycling in a partnership with RenovoData Services.
Elofson shares one of his favorite PCs for People stories. An unemployed man was going to his local library every day, waiting in line to use a computer for job-hunting. Limited to one hour of use, he said it took him about three days to apply for a single job. With his home computer, he could apply for as many as 12 jobs a day. He soon got hired as an adjunct professor.
"This is the best social work I get to do," Elofson said, "and it has nothing to do with therapy."
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