A functional computer is a bare-minimum necessity for those working in the tech industry — but in 2021, it’s also an essential for those attempting at-home learning, or remote work.
Hai Thai wants to make sure anyone in need of tech support doesn’t go without.
“Access to tech and digital information are things we take for granted,” he told Technical.ly. The Comcast software engineering manager recently donated a laptop to a family with two children. “They only have one computer and the kids had to share. One kid wasn’t able to attend school. [The mom] was so excited she took a picture of the MacBook Pro.”
As a member of Fair Trade Philadelphia, a fair trade advocacy group, helping others has been his passion. Before the pandemic began in early 2020, he had an idea to create a GoFundMe to provide schoolchildren in Guatemala with laptops, thanks to a connection via a Center City street vendor. The crowdfunding proved successful, raising nearly $2,500. Once the pandemic started, he was inspired to do even more.
Thai quickly found a problem that he hoped to solve.
“We found there was a homework gap issue before the pandemic,” he said. “Millions of low-income households can’t do homework due to lack of device or internet access.”
Getting computers to students and families became the core mission behind TechCycle, a program he founded that tackles tech access issues, including device refurbishment and distribution. So far, it’s a one-person operation: On his own time, Thai has updated a handful of computers with the software and hardware for Philadelphians in need, for free.
With each refurbished computer, Thai also includes information on Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which offers lower-cost internet to low-income families. Thai is an ambassador for the program, which announced this week that it will double the service’s download speed beginning March 1.
Information about his project has spread by word of mouth, but he needed more help. He reached out to friend and business owner Hang Dinh, who allowed Thai to use her business as a drop-off point for device donations.
Located inside the Park Towne Place apartment building in the Art Museum area, Dinh’s Pretoria Salon & Spa has been in business for over four years. Dinh considers herself fortunate to see residents and clients consistently drop off their electronics for the computer drive.
“Each week, the [building’s] community manager sends out an email blast to the residents to remind them about the drive,” she said. Donors can deliver donations to the salon Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Though it’s small now, Thai hopes for TechCycle to grow to become a permanent fixture in the tech ecosystem, and to train others to refurbish devices. In the next five years, the Vietnam native aspires to help developing nations by providing tech education and devices, and by launching an initiative to curb the illegal exportation of toxic e-waste to other countries.
If you’re looking for another way to donate unused computers to Philly families in need, check out the City of Philadelphia’s PHLDonateTech program.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.