St. Kate’s helps find new life for old computers

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By Pauline Oo
Jan. 21, 2010
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Editor’s note: This story was written before a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, on Jan. 12. We have learned that Father Rick and the children at the orphanage are safe and have sustained no injuries, but there are injuries and deaths among the NPH-Haiti staff, volunteers and visitors. Some of the NPH-Haiti facilities mentioned in the story also suffered extensive damage.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Minneapolis is a refuge for old computers. Tucked away in a back corner—in a space large enough for four adults to stand in comfortably—is the computer-refurbishing workroom where volunteers Larry Clemens and Ron Zigman repair, rebuild and find new homes for used computers, including more than 500 from St. Catherine University.

“They’re perfectly fine, except that you can’t play a super-fast game on them,” explains Clemens, a retired 3M chemist who started the rehab program in 2001.

“We clean them up and install freeware-like office applications, learning to type programs, and games that train the user in mouse and keyboard skills,” he explains. “Then we either sell them at a reasonable price to low-income families in the store or give them to schools that can use them for the students.”

Clemens roped in his former boss and friend, Zigman, after he started the shop—and work started piling up. In spring 2008, Zigman brought St. Kate’s into the mix.

“Ron and I ran into each other at a parish fundraiser that involved recycling computer parts,” says John Jeries, St. Kate’s director of information technology. Both he and Zigman are members of Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale. “Ron ended up telling me about his work for St. Vincent,” Jeries explains, “and I realized that our computers would be great for what he and Larry were doing.”

Most desktop computers have a lifespan of three to five years due to advances in technology. At St. Catherine, Jeries says computers are typically upgraded every three-and-a-half to four years, depending on the operating system or the software. Old computers can be less cost-effective to have around because, like old cars, they demand more attention and greater maintenance, he says.

“And sometimes, the cost of upgrading software or hardware on old computers is greater than the cost of replacing the computer,” Jeries adds.

Getting rid of an obsolete computer, however, is another matter. Computers and other electronic waste contain hazardous materials—such as lead, cadmium, mercury and asbestos—that are toxic to the environment and human health. So, just throwing a PC or Mac into a garbage can is a no-no.

After Jeries’ team of student-workers rounds up the old computers (hundreds at a time) and scours them of their contents, a call goes out to a recycling company. The University spent approximately $50 per computer to dispose of it safely.

“So, it wasn’t rocket science to make the decision to donate them to St. Vincent,” says Jeries.

Across the seas

Since June 2008, St. Catherine University has given more than 500 of its computers to St. Vincent de Paul. Many have found new homes in the Twin Cities, and about 120 were shipped in 2009 to an orphanage in Haiti.

“It used to be that if you can read and write, you were literate,” says Fr. Rick Frechette, CP, director of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH)-Haiti. “Now, you’re illiterate if you can’t use a computer. I want to connect the children and give them eyes to the world. And Ron and Larry can do magic, making those old computers functional again.”

NPH-Haiti includes the St. Hélène orphanage in Kenscoff, a Montessori pre-school, an elementary and secondary school, the St. Damien Chateaublond pediatric hospital in Tabarre, and the Kay Père Wasson or Fr. Wasson Center in Petionville, which serves as a guest house, administrative offices and day-school for children with disabilities.

NPH-Haiti is part of the international organization Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Spanish for “Our Little Brothers and Sisters”), which has homes and outreach programs for abandoned and orphaned children in nine Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Fr. Frechette, also the Caribbean regional director and medical director of NPH International, has known St. Vincent de Paul volunteer Ron Zigman and his wife, Joanne, for almost three decades. They met in Mexico through the Zigmans’ altruistic work with NPH International and when Father Richard was stationed in the country.

“We heard they could use some computers in Haiti,” says Ron Zigman. “And we had some lying around,” thanks to the steady supply from St. Catherine.

Zigman convinced some friends who owned a truck to deliver the computers to Miami, where the load was added to a shipping container en route to the island nation (a few hundred miles south of Florida). Upon arrival at the NPH-Haiti facilities, a group of local and American volunteers installed the donated computers at the elementary school and St. Damien hospital.

Frechette, a physician from Connecticut who has spent over two decades in Haiti, says the hospital computers have allowed him and the other doctors to have better, quicker access to medical results from a nearby laboratory.

Each year, Father Rick and his staff attend to more than 30,000 children and adults at the hospital, as well as the dental clinic and public health clinic on its premises.

The computer-recycling program, says Frechette, “is a win-win situation for all of us—for those of us in Haiti, for St. Vincent and for St. Kate’s.”


Fr. Rick Frechette posted this update on NPH-Haiti, January 15:

“Structural damages to the [St. Damian] hospital seem superficial at first glance, but about half the outer perimeter walls have fallen. The old hospital in Petionville [Fr. Wasson Center] is in ruins, and teams of workers, led by Fr. Rick’s assistant, Ferel, have been digging in the rubble around the clock.”

If you’d like to read more, see NPH-Haiti. (And click on “Latest News.”)

Also, St. Catherine University currently does not have any students from Haiti or studying in that country. But the University community is working on plans to support victims of earthquake, among them, matching donations that come in through St. Kate’s. Learn more at St. Kate’s newsroom.

Contact Pauline Oo, (651) 690-6521

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