Rosenblum: Championing affordable Internet access

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 2, 2014 - 12:01 PM

Andy Elofson and Casey Sorensen now expect long lines to form an hour or two before they open their doors.

Since the two men were featured in this column 18 months ago, their St. Paul nonprofit, PCs for People, has given away nearly 25,000 refurbished computers to grateful low-income Minnesotans.

Impressive, yes. But in their minds, only halfway to their goal.

In some neighborhoods, mostly in the Twin Cities’ urban core, as many as one-third of the residents still cannot afford Internet access, free computer or not.

Without that connection, it’s tough to check in with a child’s teacher regarding homework and progress, or figure out which bus to take to a job interview, or communicate with loved ones a state, or a continent, away.

But Elofson, the founder, and Sorensen, the executive director, are champs at finding a need and filling it. Through word-of-mouth a year ago, Sorensen connected with Denver-based Mobile Citizen, a high-speed mobile Internet provider with an altruistic founder.

As this new year begins, 7,000 Minnesotans are enjoying unlimited Internet access for $10 a month.

For these families, Elofson said, being wired in at home was only a dream before. “Pay for food, the heating bill, or have Internet?” he said. “At $10 a month, it’s more of a fixture.”

“We always knew [Internet service] was a need,” Sorensen added, “but we never found an avenue for offering it.”

They’ve been humbled by the feedback they’ve received since teaming up with Mobile Citizen. Two weeks ago, Sorensen asked clients to share success stories on the PCs for People website (www.pcsforpeople.org).

“If people’s lives are better, we don’t hear from them,” said Sorensen, who came to PCs for People in 2008 from the corporate world.

But they did hear. Within days, more than 175 users posted tributes, many of them heartfelt and personal.

“I struggled with trying to help my kids with their homework, and that was very depressing to me,” wrote a 37-year-old mother of three. “They now can get the homework help they need online.”

Another client waited regularly for a computer at her local library, feeling pressured to hurry as she hunted for work and filled out job applications. Using the home computer gifted to her by PCs for People, she learned about and enrolled in a program to get a commercial driver’s license.

A 41-year-old with disabilities wrote that not having a computer with Internet access “held me back from making friends or working. It kept me separate from the world.”

Connecting low-income individuals and families to the wired world is what drove Elofson to start PCs for People in 1998. A Mankato social worker and the recently remarried father of six, he jokes that lack of Internet access is hardly a problem for his blended clan, ages 8 to 22.

This work, he said, “helps folks like us remember the need.”

Around 65 percent of their clients are unemployed, Sorensen said. “It’s kind of an alarming number, but I guess that shows we are reaching the right people,” he said.

Computers are donated to PCs for People from businesses, government agencies and individuals, and are refurbished in the nonprofit’s 11,000-square-foot St. Paul warehouse.

Recipients, 60 percent of whom have never owned a computer, may take up to two. They make a donation if they are able, the range usually being $10 to $50. Some from immigrant communities say they’ll use computer programs to improve their English skills.

PCs for People also provides certified data wiping that businesses require, as well as free pickup and recycling. Sorensen jokes that he is sometimes the driver doing the pickup. But he’s proud of his organization’s full range of services, including warrantied products and support. And he’s proud of its growth — from one to five to 10 full-time staff members in four years.

In an effort to reach rural areas where the digital divide remains stubborn, they’ve also opened offices in Grand Rapids, International Falls and Willmar.

This year, a new venture, called PCs for Kids, will bring computers to schoolchildren in 19 communities around the state, in partnership with the Otto Bremer Foundation.

The big goal for 2014 is to give away 2,400 computers throughout the Upper Midwest. Then? “Chicago’s next,” Sorensen said.

Then maybe the world.

PCs for People, Sorensen said, is unique in its offerings and clear in its mission: “We want to make just about everything in life a little bit easier.”

 

Businesses interested in donating computers, and people interested in receiving computers or low-cost Internet, can call PCs for People at 651-354-2552, or visit <URL destination="http://www.pcsforpeople.org">www.pcsforpeople.org<PARAGRAPH style="$ID/[No paragraph style]">cq

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum

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