When: Monday, April 25 to Friday, April 29 from 12-1 p.m., during Philly Tech Week
Where: WHYY, 150 North 6th Street (6th and Race), Old City
Requirements: At least Pentium 4 processor
A sign reading “NTR Computer Thrift Store” is mostly all that welcomes visitors to the modest headquarters of Nonprofit Technology Resources on Brandywine Street in Spring Garden. Budget concerns have raised fears in recent months that the sign won’t be needed there for long.
Farther down the building’s brick faÃ§ade are arched and rectangular cutouts that have been replaced with art installations of meticulously arranged motherboards, floppy disks, computer mice and other assorted discarded gadgetry.
The result is a kind of DIY memorial to forsaken technology that has largely been abandoned in favor of the best, the newest and the fastest. A fitting message, given NTR’s overall operating model. [Full disclosure: NTR is a former advertiser]
“We recycle computers instead of throwing them in the scrap yard,” said sales associate Melvin Bonilla, 24, of Kensington. “Someone’s got to do it.”
Used equipment comes to NTR through donations from companies, groups and individuals. One recent high-ticket donation, said NTR President and CEO Stanley Pokras, 65, came in the form of 300 used machines from Comcast.
“But law firms are usually our biggest donors,” he added.
The organization has been refurbishing machines since 1995, and not just for the purposes of their thrift store, which sells used equipment at discounted prices. Hardware-centric programs run by the nonprofit include their Learning Through Technology program, which provides computers to low-income families and organizations, a computer repair service and a basic computer operation class in association with the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP).
Other programs include Help-Tech, which provides Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician and Advanced Digital Literacy training, and a workshop known as ‘Bring a Computer, Ask a Question.’ NTR’s programs, along with the thrift store, are run mostly by a student-centric volunteer workforce with only a few paid employees.
For about $200, NTR’s program in conjunction with CCP provides low-income CCP students, faculty and staff from throughout the Philadelphia area with refurbished computers, a year of Internet access and basic training in the form of a two-hour class.
And it’s a full immersion process.
In order to get to the intimate classroom where they meet and learn about their new computers for the first time, students must make their way through the backrooms of NTR’s small warehouse to the sounds of industrial heaters, whirring drills and clinking machinery.
Along the way sit stacks of old computer monitors on wooden pallets and boxes and bins of hard drives, CD drives, sound cards, modems, memory sticks, motherboards, computer processors and computer towers. Invariably, any number of NTR employees and volunteers can be seen sitting at repair stations amidst the organized clutter, tinkering with malfunctioning machines and coaxing them back to health.
Lead by Pokras, who describes himself as an “old hippie,” the CCP classes are surprisingly hardware focused, presenting skills such as how to snap in memory sticks, remove power supplies and perform other basic hardware checks and repairs. For many attendees, the class represents their first time ever seeing the inside of a computer up close.
Most people who sign up for the class, explained Pokras, have never owned a computer and want to increase their computer skills to further their education.
“This is their first computer,” he said. “They’ll be able to do their homework.”
A majority of the six students at a recent class, all of whom were female, echoed Pokras’ sentiment.
“I want to gain knowledge about computers because I’m computer illiterate, and I am catching on slowly at school, so I wanted one at home for my personal use” said Aisha Moody, 33, of North Philadelphia.
The machines are basic, with 512 megabytes of memory, 40-gigabyte hard drives and Pentium 4 processors, and the provided Internet access is dialup, an aspect that Pokras is mildly uncomfortable with.
“I feel bad giving someone a dialup connection,” Pokras said. “But it is free.”
Despite the program’s decade-long history of educating the technologically underprivileged, its future is currently in jeopardy—a position that NTR finds itself in overall. With the loss of their Tech-Redi program this past June, which provided attendees with A+ and Internet and Computing Core Certification (IC3) training, the organization lost around $750,000 worth of funding.
That loss of funding has resulted in a multitude of business ills such as struggling to meet their $3,000 monthly rent costs and several layoffs. Pokras opted to include himself among those cut in the most recent round of layoffs and now collects unemployment while working at NTR pro bono.
“If it weren’t for my wife, we wouldn’t be here,” Pokras added. “She makes sure I can eat.”
Managing to stay afloat due to their thrift store and a smattering of grants, NTR is currently seeking funding from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and other similar programs. However, the red tape inherent in dealing with the bureaucracy of
obtaining federal funding often plagues the organization, Pokras said.
Additional hurdles that leave NTR’s future uncertain include the much publicized budget cuts coming from Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration and state legislation that is scheduled to be instituted in January 2012 that aims to force electronics manufacturers to personally develop plans for equipment recycling.
“There may not be any money for this kind of activity,” he said. “I don’t know, but at least I’m working on trying to prepare for the future.”