He was tall, stately in his way, about my age, bearded with a KFC-sort of goatee, a formidable ponytail extruded from beneath a broad, outback hat, and he stood inside a small booth on a lovely late-fall day in 2006 at Hollywood Farmers’ Market in left-coast Portland where Annette and I had within the past few weeks found retirement digs around the corner from the market. I had no clue that I was talking to a Portland legend, Bob Griggs, actor, long time on-mic personality at PBS’s Portland affiliate, Channel 10 OPB, unstoppable storyteller with a stupefying array of regional and ethnic dialects readily available, and potentially a good neighbor and friend.
Bob’s booth was just as exceptional. On display were not the squash and melons and onions and apples like what surrounded us but an array of inscrutable objects that had attracted me simply by their being so totally out of character. A voluble and gregarious person, Bob was readily relating his mission: to represent Free Geek, which meant nil to me although I was about to find out that, like Bob himself, Free Geek is fabled with a sort of Portland weirdness that provides much of its image, along with a fierce sense of mission that defines its purpose, with urgent emphasis on broad meaning of “free” in its name, extending to its determined use of free and open-source Linux software in the computers that issue forth from its rebuilding tables and shunning all others (save macOS, an anomaly I choose to let others explain).
Launched on Earth Day, 2000, a mere six years and a half before that fall morning, and soon located in an empty, nondescript factory building in Portland’s central eastside industrial district, previously a bakery, Free Geek had carved out its own unmatched niche as a recycler of e-waste and a supplier of quality, rebuilt computers rescued from a steady stream of used and rejected electronic equipment brought to its doors, employing a few full-time staff and a horde of volunteers, some in the adoption program that would provide their own rebuilt computer when they’d worked six four-hour shifts reducing unusable computers to their recyclable components or rebuilding computers to be given freely to local non-profit organizations. Within days after Bob’s arresting introduction, I’d been uploaded into that digital environment, which would make a distinct mark on my life and allow me to make a mark of my own over the next 12 years, a love story of a kind I’m about to tell.
The story though has an alternate beginning far away in Manicaland of eastern Zimbabwe at Old Mutare, an historic United Methodist mission where Annette and I began an extended stay earlier that same year. While Annette worked in the mission hospital and taught quilting, I was teaching math and English in the boarding high school and had been startled by the digital abyss separating those eager but largely unaware students from American students I’d been working among in a supposedly-deprived, inner-city school in Jacksonville. As northern snowbirds Annette and I had wintered there many years, and I’d worked as a math safety net with struggling students, taking for granted the half-dozen computers and their learning programs in every classroom and fully-equipped computer labs (and where we had the luxury of debating whether the plethora of digital devices helped or hindered education). Hartzell High School had no computer in any classroom for its one thousand students, and but one crowded computer lab with outdated, donated desktops, locked much of the time and to make it totally abysmal, chained closed, supposedly temporarily, because a duo of over-eager students had broken in late one night to use the computers. The backwardness was appalling and inexcusable because in key offices on that campus satellites provided decent Internet connectivity for up-to-date computers.
The two stories began to blend during that Saturday morning encounter with Bob Griggs and a question germinated: might there be a bridge between that quirky Portland phenomenon called Free Geek and those kids so justifiably eager to break into a new world of information and opportunity?
Within days—fully assured by Bob Griggs that despite no previous experience, I’d soon be building a freekbox (pl: freekboxen) – I was following along, agog, in the requisite introductory tour group with, who else, Bob Griggs leading at Free Geek and less than a week later, registered as a bona fide volunteer, sitting all alone at a table in a closet-sized room puzzling out whether one in a jumble of parts, similar to the oddities in Bob’s booth at the market, was a video card, a network card, a sound card, or something else entirely, then step by step, within weeks, arriving in a much larger and all-over busy room where Bob and a dozen others labored over the innards of computer towers lying exposed before them. How long did it take before I too was fitting those once-mystifying cards into their slots and pushing memory sticks and hard drives into place and a monitor was blinking the good results of my work? Not long at all but with many questions asked of my neighbors in that peer-taught setting, and occasionally of a skilled staff person, it happened: a freekbox I’d rebuilt was being signed off as ready to become a grantbox.
During my earliest months at Free Geek, the memory of the enthusiastic students and chained door in Old Mutare stayed strong, but formidable transport logistics stood in the way until the increasing availability of laptops again stirred up possibilities. I’d wangled my way onto the much smaller laptop detail of Free Geek, hidden away in a mysterious room called the Black Hole, and was working with Toshibas and Dells and Hewlett-Packards and the tiny screws that held them together, experimenting, sometimes risking more complicated tasks like screen replacement, learning intricate details, then following along eventually as the laptop operation moved to larger space and became the most popular and productive aspect of Free Geek’s rebuilding work.
By that time e-waste was being recognized as a gigantic problem. Awareness and concern about how toxic were the contents of a computer, particularly of then common CRT monitors, and how unsightly were those CRTs dumped alongside beautiful Oregon roads, were front-page news. Free Geek, where responsible recycling had been taking place for years, was on the cutting edge of major change when Oregon passed laws severely restricting how e-waste would be handled. Exploding numbers of used computers and peripheral equipment began appearing at Free Geek from individuals, corporations, government offices, schools, and more. (An interesting sidebar: of the computers arriving as Free Geek donations, on average, 75% of corporate/government donations are rebuilt, and from private sources about 25% largely because age and obsolete technology make repairing that 75% impractical or impossible.)
Soon Free Geek shelves were loaded with hundreds of usable laptops, and the oversupply dictated older models becoming scraptops bound for recycling. As a tipping point the generation of the main processor chip, the CPU, became the deciding factor and up-to-date, speedier multi-core chips were obviously more valuable for restoring. Seeing stacks of laptops waiting to be dismantled, I had an idea I promptly shared with my staff supervisor, then others who would be able to make important decisions: could there be a unique category in which we placed the best of those doomed scraptops, those with Pentium M processors, that would allow me to rebuild at least a few for my African friends? The response was an almost immediate, “Why not?” It was an emotional moment; a dream might just come true. There were questions about how grant requests would be handled, and the crucial recycling issue, all resolved in short order.
Hardware Grant #35731 was born and is still alive and well, having produced at least 200 laptops that have traveled many thousands of miles in the luggage of travelers to Africa to the hands of keen children and teachers and university students, and to computer labs and community centers, churches and non-profit offices. The connectivity of larger African communities, even most small villages, has changed drastically since 2006, bypassing nonexistent hard-wire connections to wireless in a few years. Now not only do those who receive Free Geek laptops learn the basics of computer use but have opportunities to be connected to the world in new and wonderful—or as others say with some justification, dangerous—ways.
For a few months Pentium 4 Dells were the computers of choice, but then we discovered a computer beginning to appear in quantity, the IBM ThinkPad, and recognized the quality of those machines, their integrity and sturdiness, that would lend beautifully to the challenges of travel and use in distant places. I began to compare my ThinkPad discoveries to finding a 1980s Mercedes in Grandma’s garage that with essential repairs and touch up would be purring like new; laptops making safari to their final destination were soon only ThinkPads. Presently, ThinkPads would appear with the name, Lenovo, a large Chinese company that had purchased the line from IBM and steadfastly maintained the same design of which every donated Pentium 4 arriving through the donation process sooner or later got to shelves labeled “Jim’s Grants.”
But now I must switch to a branch of my story that I must not neglect to tell. Hardware Grant #35731 suddenly had a new and cherished friend. That’s the Dave Hanson story.
I met Dave when my friend, Paul Burdick, pastor at Sunset Covenant Church on Portland’s far western edge (the church named for the coast-bound highway a couple of blocks away) invited me to be a guest speaker at his church. A friendly relationship with Dave was almost impossible to avoid, and ours seemed to be spontaneous. My trips to Africa with Annette came up in our conversations, and Dave responded immediately that he was interested in such a trip. Apparently, my response was inadequate then, because soon after Dave contacted me and said, “I’m REALLY interested!” so we started some serious talk. It turned out he’d had previous experience at Free Geek and that his career had been in IT. An expert, I realized, a blessing maybe. I urged him to return to Free Geek, and soon we were working together, doubling my production of functioning laptops for Hardware Grant #35731.
In February, 2012, we traveled together to Dodoma, Tanzania, carrying six laptops between us in our luggage, to work with a church-related children’s sponsorship program known as Grace and Healing Ministry that Annette and I had visited previously. Program staff were using several of our earlier Dells, and we were promptly advised that those computers were working poorly, which translated into many hours of laptop repair—with a few balky desktops thrown in—taking up most of the time of our ten-day visit. Among other shortcomings we found that Free Geek’s Linux operating systems, carefully chosen to work with the limitations of Pentium 4 processors and fundamentally free of viruses, had been replaced by street copies of Microsoft Windows 7 with its much larger demands for speed and memory and with customary viruses. Dave recognized the critical need of a training program to support good use and maintenance of computers with Linux systems, so he fitted a class into the little time remaining (and when we returned to Portland, he got to work on a training program to be downloaded onto a CD and shipped with every computer).
Despite that intense schedule, time remained to mix with some of the many people who surrounded us, sometimes in their homes, and to be included on a trip of several kilometers outside Dodoma to an unexpectedly modern HIV/AIDS clinic and orphanage/school named Village of Hope, sponsored by a Catholic order based in Rome. Grace and Healing children who were HIV+ could be taken there as out-patients or in-patients to receive sophisticated testing and treatment.
Dave and I were treated to a tour led by Fr. Vincenzo, co-founder and thoroughly committed advocate, of much of that large, thriving, and fascinating facility. On that tour in the nursery for the youngest children, I witnessed Dave’s life-altering event.
In a dozen or so beds tiny babies, all infected with HIV and highly vulnerable, lay in almost eerie quiet. Several attendants gently tended the children as we watched, but then Dave, unbidden, walked to one of those cribs and took into his arms a boy, maybe six months old, held him tightly to his shoulder, and tears welled in Dave’s eyes. I was witnessing a burning bush moment in his life when he collided with God in a way that would transform him. Or perhaps it was Jesus’ voice saying, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me,” knowing that in some mystical but matter-of-fact way, he held Jesus in his arms. Standing several feet away I sensed deeply then and recall intensely now the holiness and mystery of that place and of those few minutes.
(A far more mundane yet wonderful memory of that trip happened late one evening after a long day. Dave and I had returned to the hostel where we were staying but decided that we’d go for a walk in that Tanzanian night on streets lighted only by myriad of stars to an outdoor tavern we’d spotted earlier, and there in that place, outside, six degrees south of the equator, under strings of electric lights, on a warm late night in mid-February, a light breeze barely stirring leaves above us, we sat together and drank a few cans of Tusker—an unforgettable experience of unique friendship.)
Back at home from our Tanzanian adventure, we resumed working at the Free Geek worktable even more convinced of the value of what we were doing, and Dave also began writing the training program that would enhance the usefulness of our computers—until a fateful day in December when I received a call from Paul Burdick with the terrible news that Dave’s wife Norma had found him dead in the back yard of his home where he had been working. That news was devastating personally and on behalf of Norma and their family and many other friends in Dave’s large acquaintance but also for Hardware Grant #35731 and the plans for a strong training program. It turned out that Dave could not be replaced, the training program abandoned where he had stopped.
Friday after Friday since, a four-hour shift each time, Pentium 4s giving way eventually to newer dual core processors, I have worked alone, now and then shipping laptops to U. S. destinations to be carried by travelers to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, or Zimbabwe, and this past May passed a significant mark of 2000 volunteer hours.
None of this—absolutely none—could have happened without the collusion and support of Free Geek and its colorful staff, a collection largely of Millennials, with a some Xers, and even fewer Boomers, and a mere handful of the Silent Generation I represent. (In fact, I have the dubious privilege of being, apparently, the eldest volunteer now that Bob Griggs has elected to retire, but then, no one keeps track of DOBs at Free Geek except the old-timers themselves.) From the days eight years ago or so when Hardware Grant #35731 was born, support has been limitless. Many young supervisors and mentors have come and gone, all leaving strong memories of productive relationships, pleasant friendships, and invariable support.
About mid-summer this year Free Geek announced a major reorganization. The laptop-build program would close to make way for a new venture, making laptop rebuilding intentionally educational so that participants would acquire usable/salable skills for repairing computers and managing software—a job training program in other words. Free Geek had always had a major educational component, and this new build program seemed to be a logical and needed extension. It appeared to me that my project could be severely affected, perhaps ended. Unable to get detailed information from my supervisors who were unsure themselves of the implications, I wrote an e-mail to Amber Schmidt, Free Geek’s staff manager of rebuilding operations, a key person in the past and now the new configuration. The e-mail I received immediately in return exemplifies my experience of unsparing support and commendation. This is much of what Amber wrote:
We absolutely do not want to inhibit your ability to continue to work on your project. I would like to invite you to continue to come in on your normal Friday morning shifts during the closure. . . .
We love having you and want you to continue to remain a pillar of our community. I have no desire to stop the special case “grant” we are working on with you, as I think that the work you are doing is so important and am proud that Free Geek can help you with it.
I have left you on the schedule for Friday mornings; please consider continuing to come in and work on your Lenovo project while we are closed for August and September and continuing that work once we re-open the program in October.
Thanks for your trust in us, and being such a big part of our community!
The story could end there—after I’ve mentioned that within the last few weeks I’ve had a promotion of sorts and am about to receive a stream of newer computers with second-generation multi-core processors, i3s and i5s, a few steps forward toward even more usable laptops in faraway places. Yet, I feel I must write more about Free Geek, this unique place that’s been ground zero for Hardware Grant #35731. Since it’s founding on Earth Day almost 19 years past Free Geek has been a locus of opportunity for tens of thousands of volunteers, has recycled hundreds of thousand tons of e-waste, given away thousands of Freekboxen to volunteers and local non-profits, and has grown in respect and affirmation within this city and beyond.
Throughout this notable history, a unique ethos has evolved within the walls of that old bakery. There’s a nerdy tone, to be sure, with an ironic and humorous twist that’s usually fun. Uniquely, people within those walls like each other. It’s vastly diverse, and careful effort is made to protect that diversity and one another. Ground rules effectively ban offensive speech that demeans or harms others. Another completely unregimented quality that likely goes unnoticed: the absence of common four-letter profanity or off-color joke-telling, despite any sort of religious norm, spoken or unspoken, to demand such conformity, rather a spontaneous understanding of what is beyond the pale within the Free Geek community, which new volunteers seem able to assimilate quickly. I noticed this unexpected benefit early on and had a few suspicions that rumors of my being a former pastor somehow dampened profanity around me but soon learned that was silly. There was a quality far more persistent at work.
One day a few weeks ago, talking to my great, good friend, Ying Yee, a volunteer whose hours at Free Geek total hundreds more than mine, I used the word Mormon carelessly, in a way that could have been construed to be derogatory and was likely intended to be a sort of ironic humor. Gently but firmly, Ying cautioned me, with his normal pleasant manner, sufficient for me to realize that I’d crossed a line that should have restrained me. He was right. Far from being political correctness outsiders might ridicule, it’s a carefully discerned and highly effective practice of respect for everyone within those walls.
Perhaps I have been able to narrate with a modicum of adequacy why I chose to call what I’ve written a love story. I have no other words by which to explain and justify the feelings I have about the years and experiences that compose my relationship with Free Geek—a term that should obviously now indicate a broad expanse of beautiful people and constructs beyond excellent programs and products, and I’ve had an extraordinarily good time writing that story that I now leave with you, although I do urge you to read the addenda that follow.
Hardware Grant #35731, by its very reasons for existence, extends far beyond the environs of Free Geek. I’d be oddly ungrateful and untrue were I to exclude partners who have been essential to that extension.
Once its rebuild is complete, including a quality control check, a laptop awaits a request from an African non-profit to move on to its final destination. Here is a typical occurrence: Mwalimu (Teacher) Josphat Waruhiu, a native of Kenya and a Portland resident, once my Swahili teacher at Portland State University, the heart and mind behind a Kenyan non-profit called Global Village Resources, texted me late last year: “Hi, my brother. . .I have someone heading to Kenya. Have you something for us? What about this Friday? She is leaving on the 4th.” Yes, indeed; at least ten were waiting, although I knew I could not prepare all ten during my next Friday shift since each laptop requires final modifications, including an upgrade of the continually-changing Linux software. Every minute of that Friday shift was occupied with preparing laptops, two of which had puzzling difficulties and were set aside for later investigation, and by that shift’s end at 2:00 p.m. when Mwalimu Josphat appeared to fetch the laptops, six were ready for him. The following Tuesday, packed in the luggage of that traveler, those six laptops set off on their safari bound for a village school or perhaps, as have several recent Free Geek laptops, Kiambu School for the Hearing Impaired in a county adjacent to Nairobi. Among those who acquire laptops from Hardware Grant #35731, Mwalimu Josphat is the most active with more than 100 laptops transported to Africa.
Sandra Gannon is the energetic force behind a non-profit called Kisoboka—“It is Possible!”–that works with schools and sponsored children in Bakka, a village a few kilometers outside Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Sandy, who herself travels to Uganda several times a year, usually requests three laptops for each trip, which I ship to her office at Trinity Covenant Church in Lexington, Mass., for use at Kisoboka Academy. Recently, Betty, the first graduate to head off to university, received one of those laptops to assist in her continuing studies. Sandy has posted a video of Betty’s response when receiving the laptop. My next shipment of laptops will go to Sandy as she prepares for another trip to Bakka in early February.
Rev. Dr. Kennedy Mukwindidza, a Zimbabwean native now a United Methodist Church pastor in south-central Kansas, leads a non-profit called Compassionate Consultative Initiative Project and travels annually with Volunteers in Mission teams that have carried several dozen laptops to a village in eastern Zimbabwe near Mutare where those teams have built and equipped a computer lab as part of a skills training center. Traveling again this June, Kennedy’s group will carry as many laptops as there are travelers.
Rev. Gary Blumenthal, a retired Lutheran pastor and theological professor and Portland-area resident, is a founder and leader of African S.M.I.L.E, a non-profit active in the Singida district of central Tanzania that has restored a high school, a hospital, and a nursing school at an old Lutheran mission. He has just begun carrying laptops on his annual trips, the first of which were given to nursing students. Gary is also a champion woodworker who uses his skills to create items he sells to help support his work in Tanzania.
Cecillia Thobani administers Fairfield Children’s Home at Old Mutare in Zimbabwe where three Free Geek computers are in use in the houses.
Rev. John Kalua, who headed Livingstonia (Presbyterian) Synod in Malawi, has received laptops for use in improving the Synod’s accounting systems.
It was glaringly apparent to me as I wrote this post that the original impetus for my Free Geek story had vanished; no Hardware Grant #35731 laptops have got to Hartzell High School. That inspired an effort to renew my connection with Jahsie Justice Manhando, a student at Africa University, whom Annette and I got to know during our 2006 visit. Justice was a resident in House 8 at Fairfield Children’s Home then and a Level 4 student at Hartzell Central Primary School. Later he progressed to Hartzell High School where he remained for six years, successfully completing A-level studies, Justice has related to me the minimal progress in computer use at Hartzell High School since my 2006 experience, even at the advanced A-level stage, and about current efforts to improve that situation in response to a national mandate to do so. Justice and I will continue to cooperate in developing a means to support that improvement using Hardware Grant #35137 laptops. That effort will join with a continuing effort to send laptops to a dear friend, Njimbu Chot Esaie (Isaiah) who works with street children in Lubumbashi, far south in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been asking for Free Geek computers for years. The seemingly impenetrable barrier has been lack of couriers to carry the laptops.