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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region
At Tent City, a digital-age fix-it school

Students learn to revive hard drives

By Zachary R. Dowdy, Globe Staff, 10/13/98

any of the patients came in critically ill, showing weak vital signs. Understandably, their doctors wore looks of worry.

A quick diagnostic test told South Ender Lesyslie Rackard, 50, who gingerly poked into a cavity she had pried open to examine a patient's insides, that surgery was necessary.

The patient's memory, she determined, was bad - and its hard drive was busted.

In this free night course at the Tent City Community Computing Center on Columbus Avenue in the South End, students learn how to keep ailing PCs from landing on the scrap heap.

The Earn-A-Computer program is part of a national movement toward computer literacy for urban residents and nonprofit groups who, for lack of money, have no access to the technological know-how that is becoming to a global economy what a disk operating system is to any computer.

For their labor, students like Rackard leave the six-week class with one of several computers they help revive over the term. But not before weeks of instruction and grueling homework.

''The course is designed to demystify the computer,'' said Aram Falsafi of Jamaica Plain, an instructor in the program, which pairs volunteer tutors with eager students.

Falsafi is a member of TecsChange, or Technology for Social Change - a group of civic-minded high-tech professionals formed in 1996 to serve grass-roots groups and poor people overseas coping with critical technology deficits. Falsafi and fellow engineer Charlie Welch founded the computer course as part of that program.

Under TecsChange's auspices, revitalized machines, often newly juiced with gobs of memory or a sleek serial port, are shipped to nonprofits in developing areas in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, bringing much-needed hardware to nations where high-tech equipment is scarce.

The group was formed in the spirit of Bikes Not Bombs in Roxbury, which teaches youths how to repair and ship bicycles overseas.

Dozens of computers, donated by area companies with surplus stock, have been revamped for use in the Earn-A-Computer program. Many of the machines are old and lack the power to run sophisticated software.

Earn-A-Computer is one of many courses offered at the Technology Center, a project overseen by community activist Mel King and supported by Tent City, the Community Fellows Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the East West Foundation, and Roxbury Community College.

In recent months, the program has gotten more selective: New applicants now face waiting lists, and not all computers are accepted.

Students have ranged in age from 10 years old to retirement and come to the course with many degrees of computer proficiency.

''I came here to get a little direction about what to do,'' said Rackard, who added that she was drawn to the course after fumbling with computer applications that just didn't seem to run right.

She said she had once before taken apart a computer when technical support personnel on her job in a local textile firm talked her through the steps over the phone. But one evening last week, she was doing the troubleshooting alone.

''Now it doesn't seem so complicated,'' she said.

Some students placed their hands on their hips and peered into or pointed at characters on monitors with error messages, contemplating the next step in their lessons or cursing the ghost in the machine. Others sat before the screen with furrowed brows before taking out a screwdriver to apply their newly acquired skills.

The air in the brightly lit, garden-level unit where the program is based buzzed with crisp keyboard taps and the low drone of variously sick machines on operating tables.

The banter was about RAM and megabytes, DOS and motherboards, BIOS and loop-back connectors.

Loop-back connectors?

Velma Cousins of Mattapan didn't know that term a few months ago, when she heard about the Earn-A-Computer program as she finished up Operation ABLE, a program designed to give people over age 55 solid skills to move back into the workplace.

''I had never opened a computer,'' she said, as tutors Paulette Houston and Paula Ann Ross of Roxbury monitored her handling of a disabled 486 computer that needed a new port. ''I had only seen the outside, the pretty part.''

But Cousins was anything but squeamish as she wielded the screwdriver, opening the machine and attacking the bug in the computer's disk operating system.

She said her knowledge of the computer, after seven sessions in the program trying to revive other old models, rivals the expertise of her son, an engineer, who now consults his mom for help with his own computer glitches.

Declared Cousins: ''He said he's really proud of me.''

This story ran on page B03 of the Boston Globe on 10/13/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

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