Old computers create new opportunities in Alberni

Two retired Alberni men are refurbishing old computers and giving low-income families a chance to make themselves computer literate.

Volunteer Manfred Baron checks the installation of an operating system on a refurbished computer at the offices of Literacy Alberni. Baron and fellow volunteer Bob Wagensvoort donate more than 40 hours a week refurbishing computers to be sold to low income families.

Computers are enmeshed in everything we do, but being on a low income makes it hard to plug into the growing cyber world.

Two retired men at Literacy Alberni are giving low-income families a chance to make themselves computer literate.

Bob Wagenvoort and Manfred Baron donate their time to Literacy Alberni to do the refurbishing work. They started after answering an ad soliciting someone to do the work.

Their quiet low-key work has thus far gone unnoticed, but not completely. The Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce recently gave both men a special recognition award for their work.

The program at Literacy Alberni refurbishes old computers and sells them for a nominal fee to low-income families. More than 90 computers have been provided so far, with an additional 30 being used in-house at the literacy centre.

The organization gets their computers donated to them from individuals, businesses, government agencies and schools.

Once donated, Wagenvoort and Baron inspect the machines to see if they’re still usable. Those that can’t be used are stripped of usable parts then donated to the Salvation Army for recycling.

The most common issue that the men encounter with computers when they disassemble them is the dirt people leave behind.

“Some of them are just loaded with it and it’s the biggest cause of computer failure,” Wagonvoort said. “People need to remove the tower and blow the dust out at least twice a year.”

Computers from schools and government agencies are well maintained and usually in the best shape when they are donated. “They’re usually upgrading their systems and that’s why they’re donating,” Baron said.

They don’t necessarily make an old machine new, but that make it like new.

Bob Wagensvoort

“We wipe the hard drive clean with a special program then install a new operating system and some programs,” Wagenvoort said. “It’s like gutting a house and remodelling the inside.”

Windows 7, Microsoft Office, Firefox and Foxit are installed. The computers don’t possess the ability to run video games though. “It gives people the basics to learn how to write, use a spreadsheet, and surf the Internet — to teach themselves to be computer literate,” Baron said.

The program is licensed to refurbish computers so it doesn’t run into any problems with installing programs.

The men are clear that they don’t repair computers; they provide a service to a low-income population and are not in competition with computer stores.

A growing number of seniors are wanting computers and to learn how to use them. “The most common question I get is ‘How do I attach a picture in an e-mail,’” Baron said.

The men are as interesting as the program itself.

They donate between 30-40 hours a week for the initiative. Baron donates extra time on top of that as a tutor.

The hours equate to a full work week but it’s a labour of love, the men say.

Baron, 61, has been retired for four years. He worked at APD mill for 14 years. His favourite subjects were chemistry and band in school.

A studious man, Baron wasn’t satisfied with his first computer — a Commodore 64. “It had no hard drive and used 5 ¼ inch floppy disks,” he said. “I purchased the parts and built one myself.”

At APD he was considered the resident computer geek by computer technicians who were hired to do the mill’s computer work. “They ended up trusting me to help with the computers they worked on locally,” Baron said.

After Baron retired he tried to stay active by building a wood shop in his backyard. “I enjoyed myself but I really needed something to get me out of the house and socially interact,” he said. “And I think my wife was tired of seeing me around the house too.”

Wagensvoort, 73, has been retired for 22 years.

He was born in Holland and came to the Alberni Valley in 1973 after spending some time in Red Deer, Alta. He took the trade school stream in Holland where he was trained as a mechanic, a trade he worked at for 31 years.

He bought his first computer at age 51 but like Baron wasn’t satisfied with its performance so he bought the parts and built one.

He remembers buying a voice recognition system and spending two weeks trying to install it on his computer. “I’m a trouble shooter so it’s a natural fit,” Wagensvoort said.

Baron and Wagensvoort live near the literacy centre and only two blocks from one another, yet they’d never met until now.

“I keep him from getting bored and give him someone to talk to,” Baron said.

reporter@albernivalleynews.com