Welcome to the United States

Friday, December 15, 2006

Welcome to the United States: Here is Your Performa 6500 Macintosh Computer

At my public library job I spend the day answering people's Internet questions, help them write their resumes, help them with web searches and other things. The town I work in, Takoma Park, Maryland -- a suburb of Washington DC -- has residents from 97 countries. Many of these people live in apartment buildings within walking distance of the library.

So my work day ends up being pretty stimulating sometimes. A few months ago I helped natives of Bolivia, Kenya and Sweden -- all within the same hour.

I speak a tolerable French, so I'm able to lend assistance in French to Francophonic Africans who come to the computer center. Two months ago a family with 4 children walked into the computer center. This family recently arrived in the United States from a war-torn African country.

My goal the first week was to memorize the children's names and great them cheerily in French each time they walked into the computer center. These youth love computers, so I see them almost every day. Memorizing their names was not hard at all.

My next step was to get to know their mom, who comes by the computer center pretty often. About a month ago I asked her if her family had a computer at home. ("Est ce que vous avez un ordinateur a vautre maison?") It turns out they don't. So I offered to keep my eye out for a donated computer.

Happily, I received an email shortly after that from a generous person in the Virgina Macintosh Users Group (VMUG), offering his Performa 6500 computer system -- with Apple Personal LaserWriter. Sweet!

I realize this family might have never seen a Mac system before, but I could help them get up to speed. The youth in this family are very bright.

This evening I delivered the computer system to their apartment and helped them set it up. In carrying the computer system into their apartment, I gave different kids the opportunity (and responsibility) to carry in different parts of the computer system -- keyboard, mouse, cables, etc. Youth just want to know that they're needed and useful. That's all they want.

We set up the computer on their dining room table and powered on. Their monitor is a beautiful Sony 17-inch CRT monitor. Within a minute or two the family was looking at a gorgeous desktop photo of a mountain in the western United States. (Perhaps Yosemite?)

With bated breath I plugged in the Personal LaserWriter to see if it worked. I explained to the family that I didn't know ahead of time if it worked or not.

The oldest boy in the family typed a sample sentence. We printed it. It worked.

I then spent a few minutes opening the laser printer to show them how they could replace the toner cartridge and paper. I issued a friendly warning to the kids to not go hog wild with the printing, as I don't want this family saddled with the cost of a new toner cartridge very soon.

I explained that I had a mouse pad to give them and some floppy disks. They asked if they could use this computer with the Internet, and I told them this computer is best used for word processing. Truth is, this computer doesn't have an Ethernet card, so if they signed up for dial-up, they might find the web surfing speed to be excruciatingly slow (as compared with the speed of the cable modem connection at the nearby public library.)

This computer came with Mac OS 9.1 and Microsoft Word 6, so the youth and adults in the family will be able to use it for word processing. I told them I would return next week with some free games, some of which I've designed myself.

What this family could really use is a copy of Kid Pix Deluxe Studio, in case anyone has a CD of that software to donate. They could also use some software for learning English. Anyone out there know what some of the recommended titles are and where to buy them? The ages of the children in this family range from 8 to 16.

Mom and dad are also learning English -- and it would be nice for them to learn English at home on their computer.

Last week I had a special moment at work when some of the youth in this family started acting up in the computer center. When I caught them acting up, I scolded them in a friendly way in French. I surprised myself that I could remember French that well. My family left France in 1973, when I was 13. (We lived near Paris for about 6 years when my dad was working for UNICEF.)

In one of those strange twists, my scolding them in French meant that they had fully arrived here in the United States. I was not going to treat these youth any different from the other youth who visit the computer center. They issued me a broad and knowing smile when I scolded them. They were now officially a part of their new country.

Sometimes in your life you are given the privilege and opportunity to help others. And what a privilege it can be.

Phil Shapiro

The author has delivered about 100 donated computers to youth, adults and families in the Washington DC-area over the past 10 years. He works as a public geek at the Takoma Park Maryland Library.

He dreams of one day distributing (or selling) new (or second hand) multiple operating system computers with tons of free educational and productivity software pre-installed and would love to hear from anyone else wanting to co-dream this dream.

He blogs at Phil's RSS Feed and hangs out on CompuMentor's Computer Refurbishers' email list, one of the largest community of people sharing information and ideas about computer refurbishing.

In his free time, he writes about ways of using donated computer equipment to spruce up your apartment and in-depth comparisons of web browsers.

His recent creative projects include Rosetimes, a method of conducting video interviews over the Internet, and Sammy's Autograph Book, a collaborative children's story project and the Infinite Museum project created using Google Sketchup.