Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Santa Claus of computers

Helpers refit old equipment for giveaway

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Donated equipment at a Woodlawn warehouse awaits attention by Full Circle volunteers.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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        Two to three students at St. Thomas More School used to share each of the 10 computers during computer lab. That's all the Withamsville school could afford. But last August, the Full Circle Group supplied 80 refurbished computers to the K-8 school, enlarging the lab and providing at least one computer for every classroom.

        Now, every student has a computer to use in lab.

        “That really makes a doable lesson,” said Peg Fischer, St. Thomas More principal. “One of the big advantages of using computers in education is, all kids can work at their own pace and individualize. With two to three kids sharing a computer, that's kind of hard to do.”

        Tucked away in a Woodlawn warehouse, Full Circle volunteers gather three times a week to breathe new life into old computers for private and public schools and non-profit organizations. The Full Circle Group is a non-profit organization of computer professionals and hobbyists, educators, network specialists, students and retirees.

        About 225 computers are stacked, refurbished and ready to be claimed. All it costs is a $100 annual membership fee in the organization to begin outfitting a school or agency. St. Thomas More would have had to pay about $80,000 if it bought its computers new.

Full Circle members Mike McPherson, Allen Bair and David Ranochak
  The Full Circle Group welcomes donations, equipment and volunteers.
  Equipment needs include 486MHz and Pentium computers with useful parts (CD ROM, sound cards, etc.), Apple iMacs or PowerMacs; ink jet and laser printers; laptop computers and docking stations, keyboards, mouses, monitors and scanners. For information on donation needs, go online at www.fullcirclegroup.org.
  Full Circle could use a volunteer lawyer, accountant and marketer, along with other workers. High school students are welcome to complete community service hours.
  Schools and nonprofit agencies interested in receiving computers also can contact the organization at 772-5777. The address is 49 Novner Dr., Cincinnati 45215.
        “That type of money is absolutely not available in my Catholic school, and I think most schools,” said Mrs. Fischer, who is so sold on the group that she's now its president.

        ; Full Circle got its start informally about four years ago when its core group of six people refurbished computers for another organization. They decided to go out on their own and do more volume. Full Circle was established in April 2000 and has since refurbished about 1,200 computers. Thirty to 40 volunteers run the organization. No one is paid.

        Initially, funds to recycle computers came from volunteers' pockets. Now they rely on individual donations and grants from businesses. Operating expenses are about $2,500 a month.

        Computers are donated by area businesses and agencies, among them General Electric, through its Cincinnati Chapter of the G.E. Elfun Society, a community service arm; the Internal Revenue Service and Cinergy. GE gave the group its first 280 computers and has donated almost 1,200 pieces of equipment, along with funds.

        Dave Ranochak, who works for General Electric, is a Full Circle and Elfun board member. One of his jobs is poking around GE, looking for computers that are fair game for recycling.

        “They laugh at me because I'll take anything,” the 48-year-old West Chester man said.

        Thanks to a federal law, companies can donate computers in use that are less than 2 years old and receive tax benefits when they upgrade their systems.

        “They're actually going to get another long-term benefit, and that's a great number of kids who are computer literate that won't have to be trained when they come into the workplace,” said Allen Bair, a Full Circle board member who works for Attachmate, a software house. The 49-year-old Anderson Township man is one of Full Circle's technical wizards.

"Geek heaven'

        It's fun to watch people's expressions when they first enter the group's warehouse, Mrs. Fischer said. “Their eyes light up.”

        This is no flimsy operation. Six to eight volunteers show up Tuesday and Thursday nights. Ten to 30 stop by on Saturday mornings. Thirty-two work stations are available. Mrs. Fischer calls it “geek heaven.”

        Volunteers erase all donor company data on the computers. They upgrade the memory and install new hard drives if they don't meet standards.

        If a school or agency has li censed software, volunteers will load it to the customer's specifications. Otherwise, computers are loaded with Linux, a “freeware” operating system.

        “We blow it out, get the dust out. We test it. We run it through its paces,” Mr. Ranochak said. “It's not state-of-the-art, but it will do everything they need to do.”

        For the $100 annual membership fee, schools and non-profits can walk away initially with up to 25 computer systems. That's about $4 a computer. If something breaks down, Full Circle will repair or replace it, depending on equipment available.

        So far, about 40 schools and organizations have received computers. Most customers are Catholic schools. “The majority of them had no computers at all,” Mr. Bair said. “They just don't have the resources the public schools do.”

        As a principal, Mrs. Fischer knows what it's like to scrounge to provide what kids need for a good education — and kids need computers.

        “Computers are a great equalizer in education,” she said. “The Internet is a wonderful source of information. Full Circle is providing classroom computers that, otherwise, would not be affordable.”


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