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Fair trade: Free computers for community service

Published in the Grand Rapids Advance news paper*,
Reprinted by permission
Post publication additions to the article, for clarification, are in parenthesis,  italicized.   

There are shelves full of monitors, hard drives, keyboards and boxes of  "mice" (not the rodents) and software.  This is not the workshop of a computer technician, though.
It's the workshop of Bill and LaVerne Blickley, founders of Wherever God Wills, a non-profit corporation that provides support to Inner-city Christian youth groups.  Wherever God Wills is located at the Blickley's house at 1312 Dunham St. SE in Grand Rapids.
The computer parts have taken over the basement workshop because since March the Blickleys have been on a mission to upgrade (good) used computers and give them to Grand Rapids inner-city students and their families, in exchange for 10 hours of community service.
Blickley said the fee computers are aimed at Inner-city Grand Rapids students and their families, who are enrolled full-time from junior high to early college, who do not already own a computer and who cannot afford to buy one.
Before the student can get a computer they must complete an application and complete 10 hours of community service.  The community service can be done at school, a church, or any (non-profit) community organization of their choice.  The student has to give the Blickleys a statement from the organization that they fulfilled the 10 hours.
"If they can't  afford a computer, then (we) give them one after they do the community service," Bill said.  "If they can afford one, I direct them to a place where they can buy a computer."
Bill said it all started because he has some neighbors who are Somalian and he noticed that they didn't have a computer.

"We became aware that there are a number of people around this neighborhood who didn't have a computer and couldn't afford one.  If you don't have a computer, or access to the Internet, you're disconnected (from) the information age.  It just became clear it was something we could do at a low cost."
This past March, Bill started surfing the Internet to find places that were selling or giving away computer parts.  He also starting checking ebay (and other Internet auction sites) for computer parts and sent emails telling people what he was doing.
In addition, since he says, "I'm not a technician, I'm just a computer user," he had to learn about computers and how they work so he could upgrade them.  So he started taking them apart and learning how they worked.
In the meantime, Bill was searching for parts for sale on (the Internet) and a man in Lincoln, Nebraska had 50 monitors that he would (donate to the project for inner city students).  So the Blickleys drove to Lincoln (Nebraska) for the monitors.
Then a man in Buffalo, N.Y. was trying to sell computers on (Gizmo.com, another Internet auction site).  He had 70 monitors and 150 computers for a good deal, so the Blickley's  hit the road again.

In both cases the Blickleys chose to drive because it was cheaper than paying the postage for such large items.

As Bill was working on these computers he came across a problem.  He needed  software that he could legally install into the computers.  He said he struggled to find a corporation (including the Microsoft Corporation) that would donate software or sell it to him. (Bill needed software that was designed for these computers.)

He contacted Congressman Vernon Ehlers through email and explained what he was doing and asked if he could talk to Bill Gates and get him to donate software or sell it to him.  Ehlers told him Gates would not donate the software or even sell it to him (at a discount), but said (Gates advised that Blickley) should try to find a corporation that would (donate good computers with the software still on them).

Bill (Blickley) asked several corporations in the Grand Rapids area and none of them would donate or sell him the software.

Finally, Bill found a man on ebay from Houston, Texas who would (sell) him cartons of unopened Windows... and Microsoft Office Professional... software for a good deal....

"I bought a lot of parts on the Internet and sent many emails telling people what I've been doing and I've learned that people are sympathetic," said Bill.  "I've noticed a lot of people care about disadvantaged, central city and (ethnic) minority people because of their willingness to (help and) give me good deals.    Most people say they don't have much (to give) but they like what (we're) doing and they donate items or give me a good deal." ...

... Even though it's been a lot of work, Bill said he is surprised at how easy it has all come together.

"Each problem has come one after another and not all at once so I am able to work through each problem as it comes... like when I needed the software, it was a struggle but it was there.  It's been a blessed and interesting project." 

The Blickleys also offer six months free (dial-up) Internet use and after that they (Student families who receive these computers) can receive the Internet  (Now $10.88) a month through Allendale Telephone Company.

In a written statement to each family that receives a computer (that includes hints for successful computer operation), the Blickleys warn people that they take the computer "as-is" but if they experience any problems they can call the Blickleys who are more than happy to try to help with any problem ...
 (After 30 days...If the student has a problem with the computer ... Blickley's will repair or replace the computer, monitor, mouse, or keyboard if it breaks... for a fee of (not more than) what any other computer repair shop estimates  it will cost to repair it.)

... Bill said he decided to give computers to those students and their families in need for 10 hours of community service for two reasons:
The first reason, he invests about 10 hours of time to update each computer and he believes they need to spend as much time doing something to earn the computer.

The second reason is Bill said he feels allowing people to do 10 hours of community service for their computer weeds out people who just want something for free.
"This sorts out the people who really want and need a computer,"  he said.

Even though the Blickleys have given many computers away and have received many computer parts, they are in need of many things including (Dot) Matrix printers, connecting cables and new ribbons for the printers, Windows... software, Microsoft Office... software, Microsoft Works... software, educational and adventure software on CDs and diskette, 14 and 15-inch monitors, and Pentium computers.

The Blickleys are also asking for financial, ( Software and Hardware) contributions, which are tax deductible because Wherever God WiIls is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501C3 non-profit organization.

In addition, the Blickleys encourage other people to duplicate their idea.  "If I can do this, anyone can.  I can't fill the need that is out there.  If ten other people did this same thing, we could help cross the digital divide (in Grand Rapids)," Bill said.

After giving ... computers to families and teaching them how to use them, Bill said he has seen many students and their parents work together.
"When you see a child showing the parent how to use the computer, it's an exchange that is really fulfilling to me."

For more information, contact Bill or LaVerne Blickley at 452-2683 or visit their Web site at www.whereverGodwills.org. Those interested in donating computer parts should deliver or send them to the Blickley's house, 1312 Dunham St. SE, Grand Rapids  49506.

October 24, 2000