Club helping bridge digital divide

Don DiTullio, Tellico Village Computer Club volunteer, works in the TAP lab located in Lakeside Plaza.

The outreach activities of the Tellico Village Computer Users Club have grown far beyond the community where the club was founded in 2002 to provide technical support for local residents.

As of the end of 2021, the Technology Access Program that began in 2007 with a concentration on serving East Tennessee has given away almost 10,000 computers to needy individuals in places as far away as Africa, Warren Sanders, co-chairman, said.

“We sent 22 laptops to a school in Zambia,” he said.

Sanders said he and a few dozen volunteers regularly work with nonprofits around the state and companies across the country to increase the availability of digital devices in underserved communities.

While some computers are given directly to schools, increased federal funding has kept most public schools supplied with digital devices. Most of the computers the organization distributes go to individual students, shut-ins or families in need.

Also important are the relationships TAP has built with local nonprofits to further the original goal of technology access and digital equity. A great example is ROANEnet, a Harriman-based organization founded in 2018 that is dedicated to digital equity and inclusivity.

Dayle Beyer, executive director of ROANEnet, said TAP serves as both a source of computers and a model for the organization’s efforts to give away devices to deserving individuals. ROANEnet gave away about 400 computers last year, she said.

“The ROANEnet digital lab and virtually our entire process was set up based on what we learned from TAP,” she said.

Sanders said some of TAP’s out-of-state efforts are coordinated with help of organizations such as the Tennessee/Kentucky Kiwanis Club. In Knoxville, Sols Write House has worked with TAP to distribute more than 1,000 computers to at least 1,500 underserved families.

“Warren and his organization have been so kind to us,” Sherry Williams, founder of Sols Write House, said.

The source of the equipment has also diversified over the years, Warren said. The outreach program started by refurbishing equipment that was donated at local garage sales and selling it to fund the efforts of the computer club.

“We got them from people who were upgrading their home computers and we sold them,” Warren said. “One day we got the idea that we could do something better with the computers other than just sell them.”

Today, many of the computers are donated by organizations from across the state and country. Aronic, an Alcoa-based company formerly known as Alcoa Aluminum, donated 186 desktop and laptop computers. Insight Financial Services in Costa Mesa, an equipment leasing company, has donated as many as 60 computers at a time to the club, including Dell laptops provided last year.

Some of the donated equipment can be easily repurposed by simply wiping the hard drive and upgrading the operating system. Other devices might be stripped for useful components such as hard drives, optical drives and memory cards that can be installed in other computers.

During the intake process, computers go through a “triage” process that determines functionality and useful components before moving on to the next stage of rehab. Some devices are turned over to a recycler to process the equipment for scrap through an environmentally sound process that keeps the computer from ending up in a landfill.

Of the 40 or so volunteers with the outreach program, about 20 regulars works every day, once a week or once a month, depending on their own schedule. Others stop by when they have time.

Some volunteers are bona-fide computer experts with years of experience working in the field, while others are dedicated amateurs whose responsibility involves testing systems, replacing printer cartridges and other less technical duties.

Sanders said all the effort of volunteers, donors and distribution partners goes toward the original goal of TAP, which is to make sure digital technology gets into the hands of those who need it and that none of the technology goes to waste.