Donated computers blessing lives of homeless, refugees

Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen

For a homeless person, a computer offers a path to priceless, essential opportunities. It can help one land a job, find affordable housing and even reconnect with relatives and loved ones.

But for many who live on the streets, in shelters or in their cars, access to a computer is often a rare luxury.

A similar dilemma faces folks in refugee communities. A computer is a key tool in helping political refugees in the United States learn English, find jobs and make the challenging transition to a new country and culture.

But many refugees arrive in this country with little more than perhaps a change of clothing. Again, access to computers is often limited.

But a partnership between Brigham Young University, the Church’s humanitarian services office and the Applied Technology Foundation (a nonprofit organization that helps place discarded computers in disadvantaged communities) is offering high-tech hope to Utah’s homeless and refugee communities.

“Families who don’t have access to a computer are at a serious disadvantage, especially children who can quickly fall behind,” said Dennis Lifferth, chairman of the Applied Technology Foundation.

Working through the Church’s Welfare Department, BYU recently passed along 28 computers to the foundation, which then refurbished the machines and loaded them with up-to-date essential software. The computers are now serving people in dire need.

Twenty machines were placed in the computer lab at Salt Lake City’s Weigand Homeless Day Center.

“This gift was a Godsend,” said Chris Baker, who helps operate the computer lab.

Homeless people who visit the center now have easy access to several desktop computers. Lives are being changed whenever a visitor logs on to find online job listings and permanent housing opportunities, send emails and craft electronic résumés.

But the power of the new computers goes beyond housing and employment leads, said Gina Lopez, a client advocate at the center. Many people without permanent housing are reconnecting with estranged loved ones via Facebook and other social media. Families are being reunited.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I haven’t spoken to my mom in 20 years,’ ” she said. “I’ll tell them, ‘Get on a computer and send [her] an email.’ ”

Visitors to the center can also learn valuable computer skills on the refurbished machines that will serve them well in job searches and the future.

Just a few miles south of the Weigand facility is the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, a facility that serves the area’s growing refugee and immigrant communities.

Each weekday dozens of young people from nations such as Somalia, the Sudan, and Egypt participate in the center’s afterschool program. Many of the children don’t have access to computers at home and risk missing out on valuable computer training essential to their education and assimilation.

Youngsters of all ages and backgrounds, along with their parents, are now learning the basics on eight computers donated and refurbished by BYU and the Applied Technology Foundation.

The new computers are helping many young people improve their English, complete their homework, master computer skills and, yes, have fun, said site coordinator Kevin Niepraschk.

Their parents, meanwhile, are using the center’s well-stocked computer lab to improve their own English skills and to feel more comfortable in their new home.

Daryl Mastin of BYU’s office of information technology said it’s uplifting knowing many of the computers that served the school well are now helping others find their way in their communities. @JNSwensen

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