Kramden in the News: Fixing Computers for Good

By Bridgette A. Lacy, News from RTP

When fourth-grader Willie Shaw brought home a refurbished computer, it came packed with a gateway of opportunity.

The computer comes with an open source operating system called Ubermix that is less vulnerable to viruses and malware. In addition, the computer is loaded with more than 60 programs including LibreOffice, an office suite similar to Microsoft Office; Scratch, a free programming language where you can create your own interactive stories, games, and animations; Stellarium, a virtual planetarium; and Audacity, an audio editor.

Willie is just one of thousands of students awarded a computer by Kramden Institute.  Kramden was founded in July 2003 by Mark and Ned Dibner, a father and son. “Kramden” is ‘Mark’ and ‘Ned’ spelled backwards. The idea came from Ned, then 13, who suggested to his father that they refurbish and fix older computers to donate to middle school honor-roll students in Durham who could not afford home computers.

The two-person operation that started with 90 personal computers and 50 monitors has grown substantially. Kramden Institute now has 30 Super Geeks, a 10-member management team and 1,000 volunteers including retirees and Research Triangle Park employees.

It has awarded more than 22,800 computers to deserving students across 78 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Kramden partners with numerous schools, other non-profits and military aid organizations across the state to award computers to those struggling to bridge the digital divide.

For Willie Shaw and his siblings, a computer becomes a window to a world beyond his modest circumstances. It opens doors to people, places and possibilities beyond their immediate environment.

“It’s pretty awesome,” says Willie’s mother, Kelly Hayes. She explains that Willie shares the computer with his older sister, Jazmine and his younger brother, Brandon.  “I didn’t realize how many programs were already on it,” she says.

Like Willie’s teacher in Northeast Raleigh, Rodney L. Smith, an assistant principal of Apex Middle School in Apex, has witnessed the impact giving a computer to a student can make. “Having access puts everyone on the same playing field,” he says. “Having a computer is now is like having a pencil.”

Smith has been recommending students to Kramden Institute for the last three years.

He explains that while the students who receive the computer are already high achievers, their grades often go up immediately because of all the learning programs they now have access too.

Don Rowe, a MetLife IT vendor management consultant, and Kramden team management volunteer, says he’s almost brought to tears when he helps pass out computers to students and their families.

“It’s like Christmas for them and they just got the toy they always wanted,” he says. He understands that for some parts of society, a computer is common place, but that this is not the case for everyone.

At one event, he recalls a mother’s handwritten thank-you note in her native Spanish language expressing her appreciation for a computer for her son. She wrote that the laptop was going to help her son who was a hard-worker but struggling in some of his subjects.

It’s those heart-warming stories that keep Rowe donating his time and resources to Kramden. In 2009, he started refurbishing computers for them. Eventually, he went from giving his 20 hours there to assisting them in charting a plan to get more corporate donations instead of relying so much on government grants, which were drying up.

Last year, MetLife donated 400 laptops and 600 desktops and monitors. The MetLife Foundation also contributed a $25,000 grant. Rowe also organizes MetLife’s volunteers for Wednesday work nights refurbishing computer sessions, normally they have 6 per year.

Rowe, the son of a social worker, said he was taught by his mother to volunteer his time early in life. He likes encouraging others to do so as well. Last year, more than 250 MetLife volunteers took part in the “Geek-A-Thon,” refurbishing 400 computers, and loading them with an Ubermix operating system and the latest in educational software.

Kramden offers a chance for any individual or corporation to get involved. Lisa Jemision, director of RTP Programs, says Kramden Institute gives residents a place to recycle their electronics and an opportunity to help those in their community with digital literacy.

Discarded, old computers may contain up to 8 pounds of lead along with lower levels of mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and other toxic chemical. So recycling them makes it safer for the environment.

Meanwhile, disadvantage families can benefit from having a refurbished computer in the home. “We are bridging the digital divide,” Jemison says.


The original article can be found here.