It’s not uncommon for friends to call up Janet Mitts with computer problems. Last week, she even fixed her hairstylist’s laptop. She regularly brings people down to the basement computer workshop where she volunteers to give their machines a diagnosis and a cure.
But Mitts isn’t your typical computer whiz. She’s a 66-year-old retired African-American woman who lives on the south side of Chicago. She learned to fix computers and even built her own with the help of a scrappy nonprofit called FreeGeek Chicago.
“I always loved taking things apart, and I got fascinated by computers,” she says. “I love learning how the parts work, what makes them tick, what goes where.”
Mitts is not the only one. FreeGeek Chicago has taught hundreds of people how to take computers apart and put them back together, allowing them to volunteer weekly to eventually earn their own refurbished computer. FreeGeek has two objectives: to cut down on the amount of computer waste thrown into landfills and to give people low-cost access to technology.
Founder David Eads says he’s amazed at how FreeGeek has grown, without any support from grants or foundations, to create a vibrant community.
Six years ago, Eads and a few young, idealistic friends were passionate about narrowing the digital divide and frustrated with the computer-lab model often employed in poor communities.
“You learn computers by having them in your home,” says Eads. “You learn computers by learning to break them and then fix them.”
Soon after, Eads and his friends learned about a new nonprofit in Oregon, FreeGeek Portland, that was providing free computer parts and training to residents there.
Soon after, FreeGeek Chicago was born.
Although it started off slow, FreeGeek Chicago has taken off. In the first three years it was open, about 100 volunteers completed their build-a-computer program. In 2010, Eads estimates that up to 750 people will have gone through it.
Part of that rise in volunteers is their open door policy. Eads says FreeGeek doesn’t put limits on who can come through its doors — there are no income restrictions or background checks.
“I always say, ‘We don’t care if you just got out of the joint or you just got out or church, as long as you are willing to treat people with respect,’” he says.
Although they use funds from computer sales and scrap metals to keep it running, Eads says FreeGeek can always use a little more of two things: money and computer donations. In particular, he says, they need donations of old laptops.
“People want to buy laptops and volunteers want to work on laptops, so they’re a win-win for us,” says Eads.
FreeGeek Chicago runs almost entirely on volunteers, with only one paid staff person, Aaron Howze, running the day-to-day operations. Howze is a former electrical engineer who came to FreeGeek to help out and got hooked.
“I found that I could learn what I didn’t know and I could teach what I did,” he said. “I found that extremely satisfying.”
Twenty-year-old Sarah Fletcher recently came to FreeGeek to build her own computer. She’s studying business at Kennedy King College on Chicago’s south side and needs a computer for her school work. Even though it was her first day in the workshop, she said she planned on coming back — a lot.
“I don’t just want to get my computer,” says Fletcher. “I want to become a staff member. I want to be one of the people who knows everything.”
So, does Janet Mitts, admitted computer devotee, now think of herself as a geek?
“No,” she says. “But if I was, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.”