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Helping Toronto’s needy get nerdy

The computers in Wayne Smith’s office are homemade.

The computers in Wayne Smith’s office are homemade. And by homemade I mean this industrial warehouse in the Junction is filled with old electronic junk — piles of old computer towers, monitors, wires and motherboards — where Smith spends a good part of his week.

Along with a small group of computer enthusiasts, Smith launched Free Geek Toronto last March with funding from the Toronto Enterprise Fund’s annual business plan competition. They have also received a grant from the Trillium Foundation. Part recycling depot, part community technology centre, the organization that’s all about “helping the needy get nerdy” takes old computers and either sorts the parts for ethical disposal, or teaches volunteers how to refurbish them.

Smith is the only employee, but he shares the centre with more than 130 volunteers. Today, the middle-aged man with short, salt-and-pepper hair and glasses is taking a group of potential volunteers on an orientation tour. He waves his hands for emphasis as he tells us about the centre. Inspired by the original Free Geek, which opened 10 years ago in Portland, Ore., it sets out to do something with the massive amount of electronic waste produced every year.

He points at the piles of electronic waste, sorted and waiting for pickup — the organization gets $200 per ton through the Ontario Electronic Stewardship program. But it pulls out some of the precious metals — traces of gold, platinum and copper — to get a better price, and to reuse as much as it can. It also diverts the salvageable parts.

“It’s about recycling, and also about making computers accessible,” he says. If you volunteer at Free Geek for 24 hours, you can go home with a free, refurbished Pentium 4 with an open source operating system and programs. In a more intense, 60-hour program, you can learn to build a computer from parts. Smith tweaks the teaching-a-man-to-fish adage and concludes the centre can “free you from techno-slavery for the rest of your life.”

At the back of the warehouse, shelves house computers labelled with masking tape — Henry, Erica and Allen’s machines are in the “in-progress” section, Eric’s is built and in the testing shelf.

But the program is not just for the needy — Smith says many of the volunteers aren’t there for the free computer, but for the cause.

To get involved, see www.freegeektoronto.org.

– Read more of Carolyn Morris’ columns at www.metronews.ca/carolynmorris

 
 
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