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Agency bridges digital gap for needy kids

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By Leslie Williams

RALEIGH, N.C. — For kids without a computer at home, it can be tough to overcome even the most basic obstacles.

Not only are they cut off from the view of the world the internet provides, but there also is the sting they feel when turning in handwritten homework alongside a classmate’s typed assignment.

In 2005, the Purple Elephant Computer Factory was created to combat such problems by placing computers in the homes of needy children.

So far, the Raleigh-based nonprofit has refurbished more than 650 used computers and given them to some of North Carolina’s most-deserving families.

But the loss of critical grant money has forced Purple Elephant to move from paid to volunteer staff and drastically cut its production.

Dave Hinton, the group’s founder and executive director, says it costs companies $25 to $75 to recycle old computers they no longer need.

Purple Elephant, which is designated by Microsoft as an “authorized refurbisher,” acts as a kind of broker, taking out-of-date computers off companies’ hands at no charge and turning them around to children who need them.

“It helps the environment,” says Hinton, a retired captain with the U.S. Public Health Service. “But the main thing is that we give these computers to kids.”

The organization finds homes for the computers through referrals from agencies like Habitat for Humanity, the Department of Social Services and Lions Clubs.

The average cost to renovate a unit is $75, which is usually covered through donations either from the referring organization or the family, although some families can afford only a fraction of that.

“That’s okay too,” Hinton says. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The computers are fitted with modems, allowing families to access the internet, usually at a discount from their local service provider, and families are trained to use their machines.

Hinton started Purple Elephant out of his garage, but the workshop now lives rent-free at the Goodwill Community Foundation.

But he also started out with a paid staff of three people working five days a week, and has since had to cut back to an all-volunteer staff working Wednesdays only.

The loss of several grants led to the cutbacks, he says, causing a drop in production and a backlog of 500 used computers in his workshop, all of them waiting for a little repair and a good home.

As a result of budget constraints, plans to help children create personal websites have been put on hold as the organization focuses on the basic need of training children to use their new, old computers.

Original funding for Purple Elephant came from the Marie Arrington Hinton Foundation, and the organization is currently supported through a $2,500 grant from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal, and contributions from individuals.

Hinton is pursuing grants through several foundations to get closer to meeting the organization’s goals, he says.

Hinton and his team of volunteers are currently working on fixing up the last 100 of 300 computers for families referred by the North Carolina National Guard.

The computers are all being placed in homes where a parent is away on active duty.

“I thought the major use would be just e-mail as communication with the family member serving overseas,” Hinton says.

But the computers are also a saving grace for moms or dads who suddenly find themselves doing the work of two parents.

“With the computer,” he says, “they can take care of a lot of payment and paperwork issues online once the kids are in bed.”

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