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Using Old Computers to Forge New Opportunities

April 12, 2001|SUSAN McLESTER |

Every once in a while you run across someone or something extraordinary. Working with educators as I do, it happens a lot to me. The other day, for instance, I was evaluating applicants for the Computer Learning Foundation's Hall of Fame and found a Web site honoring the contributions of Bruce McComb, a computer instructor in Kennewick, Wash.

McComb and his wife are behind an effort called Realizing Every Community Asset, a foundation with little money but a big idea: empowering the poor by providing them with recycled computers and training. Soliciting donations from businesses and other organizations, RECA musters funds and volunteers to refurbish computer equipment.

Kennewick is an area in the southern part of Washington where the Snake, Yakima and Columbia rivers converge and where 300 sunny days a year make it perfect for growing wheat, potatoes and other crops.

This also explains the large population of Mexican migrant workers--a group that traditionally has both a high poverty level and higher school dropout rate than any other. To alleviate this, McComb put together a Mac lab with software to help the adults in these families learn English and created a lab that acts as an after-school homework center for their kids.

Also taking advantage of the homework center is a large number of Bosnian refugee youngsters, whose families each have their own home computer installed with English-language-learning software, thanks to McComb.

Other community members are benefiting as well. McComb established a program providing job training for adults trying to get off welfare and for at-risk youth coming from the Juvenile Justice Department.

He has also seen to it that the blind and developmentally disabled receive training and their own computers loaded with speaking e-mail, word-processing software and other products that help them communicate and maintain productive jobs.

Because of McComb, youngsters with autism and attention-deficit disorder are learning on the computer and interacting with a larger world that once was inaccessible to them. Also because of McComb, a 15-year-old with cerebral palsy and limited hand mobility has tripled his words per minute using voice-activated software. And a high school senior too severely disabled to leave his home can attend college via a donated computer with an Internet connection.

On the Web site,, which features pictures and testimonials from many who have been touched by McComb's efforts, it says under his photo: "He has taught hundreds of people to use computers and the Internet, and how to use the computer to benefit others."

Does your community provide equitable computer access? Some of the questions McComb suggests you ask include the following. If the answers are no, maybe there's something you can do to help.

* Does your community offer free e-mail service?

* Does your community have free access to computers and the Internet?

* Is there low-cost computer training?

* Do low-income families use computers to find information about jobs and services?

* Do disabled residents have access to adaptive equipment that enables them to take full advantage of the Internet and computer technology?

* Do immigrants and migrant workers have access to information technology in their own language?

* Is there a computer recycling center that gets refurbished computers into the hands of the have-nots?


Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.

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