Bill Rose from Rek Hill, Texas, shows one of his restored computers to his mule Nancy. Bill is one link in the chain of people who are turning junker laptops into fast machines for rural families who need hardware to participate in online learning. (Photo by Bill Bishop)

Sign up for our newsletter

Our buddy Eric had one stored in a shed, locked away so his buffalo couldn’t get to it. Marsha had two in her closet. The Weimar Girls and Boys Club uncovered six more.

Everywhere we looked, we found them – old, unused computers that nobody wanted and nobody was willing to throw away. They were gunked up with malware or bypassed by the umpteenth version of Windows. The owners thought they were worthless.

But we had discovered they were pure gold.

This is a how-to story. It tells how any community can put working computers into the hands of people who need them at almost no cost.

The digital divide isn’t just about broadband. There is also a hardware divide. “Not all kids have computers,” read the headline from a recent survey.

Payton Carter at Harry’s Computers in Columbus, Texas, wipes data off a hard disk as store rabbit Sandwich supervises. Deleting the old data prevents security breaches and prepares the machines for a clean installation of Linux, a free operating system. (Photo by Bill Bishop)

Not all adults have computers either. And in these days of stay-at-home work and Zoom schoolrooms, to be without hardware is a special kind of quarantine.

Over the last month, we have taken these neglected machines, stored under shoes and hidden from bison, refurbished them, and given them away. Now adults who, until the coronavirus, were studying English in classrooms are continuing their learning on Zoom. And their kids are connecting with their teachers.

It was simple. Any community can do it. But first you need a Bill Rose.

We met Bill in a Spanish class. Bill is a retired engineer type who lives in the southeast part of Texas in Rek Hill, a suburb of Fayetteville (pop. 263). Bill told how he liked to get old computers, wipe their disks clean and then load them with Linux, the free operating system. In no time and at no cost, he said, these old machines could do anything, and do it fast.

We had been teaching English as a Second Language at night and knew that many of our students didn’t have computers. After Covid-19 shut down our face-to-face classes, we were stumped. We asked Bill if he had a machine we could give to Janet Moreno. Janet was a loyal student, driving 40 miles roundtrip four nights a week to work on her English in La Grange. After the schools closed, she also had three children at home and a husband taking online college courses at night. Bill Rose said he would get an old Toshiba laptop ready.

Nicolas England, a Texas A&M senior, talks to Enrique and Lourdes Ramirez about their new-to-them machine, which came preinstalled with programs for online learning, word processing, spreadsheets, and other tasks. (Photo by Bill Bishop)

The next week, we drove the computer to the Whataburger in Schulenburg where Janet works. We gave her the machine, she hugged it and said, “This is my first computer.”

That night, Janet was on Zoom working on her English. Later, her oldest child was zooming for the first time with his teacher.

It worked.

Then we got serious. We started asking people for computers and, sure enough, they had them. Most folks are reluctant to give up their machines to strangers, so we said we would have them professionally wiped clean of all information, a task we entrusted to Harry Carter at Harry’s Computers in Columbus. Harry, with the assistance of his son Payton and store rabbit Sandwich, handles this for $10 per computer.

We drove the data-less machines to Rek Hill, where Bill Rose installed Linux and a set of other programs – email, word processing, spreadsheets, Zoom, Foxfire, Chrome. Then we gave them to our ESL students.

Janet Mareno was zooming an English session the night after got her first computer. (Photo by Bill Bishop)

More machines came trickling to us from friends and local non-profits so that within a few weeks Bill needed help. Good thing that getting help in La Grange is easy. You just have to ask. Within a day or two Nicolas England, a math and computer science student at Texas A&M, and Landon Von Minden, an eighth grader at La Grange Junior High, were tackling more old machines. A few days later, high school senior Sean Green volunteered. Now Tara Bennett, the crackerjack computer teacher at La Grange High School, is hunting down old computers at the school.

We figured we couldn’t be the only people doing this, and we’re not. With a little looking, we found Ken Starks in Taylor, Texas, which is about 30 miles northeast of Austin. Ken has been rehabbing old computers and loading them with Linux since 2005. So far, his outfit, Reglue, has given away 1,698 computers. Ken says he’s looked for like-minded programs over the years but hasn’t found any.

This past Sunday afternoon we met Sonia Gomez in La Grange. Misty Von Minden drove her son Landon in from Nechanitz outside La Grange with the computer he had rehabbed. Landon showed Sonia, her husband Urbano and daughter Emily how to turn on the HP laptop, where to link it to WiFi, how to find Zoom and other features.

Sonia said she was going to use the machine to work on her GED and English. Emily needs it for school. And Sonia’s son will be able to log in to his college classes. “We’ve wanted a computer,” Sonia said, “but they are so expensive.”

Bill Rose insists that when each refurbished machine boots up, the first thing that appears is the new owner’s name – Janet Moreno, Arcenia Cuellar, Jose Lopez, Marina Torres… Bill thinks it’s important that people see that these machines are meant for them.

When Landon had finished his explanation, Sonia turned to us and asked when she needed to return the silver HP. Never, we all chimed in. It’s yours.

(If you need help setting up a “computers for all” project in your county, write us at bbish@protonmail.com or call 979-338-9233. We can send instructions and even the programs we install on our computers. We cannot, however, send Sandwich the rabbit. Here are some more photos of Sandwich.)

Landon Von Minden (far right) explains to Urbano, Sonia, and Emily Gomez how their new computer operates. Sonia will use the machine to work on her GED and Emily will be able to connect with her school online. Landon is finishing his eighth grade in La Grange, Texas. (Photo by Bill Bishop)