Monday, August 4, 2008

Used computers creating new hope for Salone youth

In a small drop-in center located near the National Stadium in Freetown, a group of young people including school dropouts, homeless youth, ex-child combatants and amputees gather to escape the harsh reality of life on the street. They talk, share and learn in a safe space called ‘iEarn’ that provides them a positive environment to help turn their lives around.

As a beneficiary of the World Computer Exchange (WCE) program, iEarn provides computer lessons and internet access, free of charge, to many vulnerable youth living in the area. The drop in center also provides other programming designed to empower and develop the talents of these young people.

Jonathan, a client of the center, was severely burned in a rebel attack during the war that left his hands and face visibly scarred. “I am a war affected person, and iEarn has made all the difference. If I lose a hand, I can only make it up if I learn to read and write. Carpentry, electrical – I can’t do it. It is better to come to iEarn than to sit at home idle. You can be a disabled, but you can still do something positive in the community. We have to link with (these marginalized youth), take them out of the streets and back into the community.“

The center opened in 1998, and received a shipment of computers from WCE in 2007.
According to iEarn coordinator Jane Peters, “staying at home or on the streets is not good. Outside can be offensive, here we provide a family, safety. Here there is a future for them. Amputees feel left behind, ex-child combatants feel left behind. At iEarn we are one, there is no discrimination here.”

Chrissy, a volunteer worker at iEarn used to live on the street before he started accessing the drop-in center. Now he helps others like him to turn their lives around and look forward to a brighter future. “Before, I was on the street, iEarn helped a lot. We find the kids on the street, wandering, victimized by the war. We are all brothers and sisters. No matter the condition, there is still hope for them.”

World Computer Exchange is an American NGO that aims to help youth connect to the internet, learn to use computers and bridge the global ‘digital divide’ by facilitating the donation of used computers from North America to local organizations in the developing world.

Lucas Aalmans, a volunteer with WCE, said that the donation of the computers gives to the host organizations a invaluable tool for young people, from accessing information to enhancing the education of those in primary and secondary schools as well as university.

The computers that are donated are usually between 3 and 4 years old, but remain in working condition. “Getting computers is often not the big problem, it’s the shipping costs”, said Mr. Aalmans.

WCE receives used computers and asks sponsors to pay for shipping costs, the greatest expense involved in the process. The local partner organizations that would receive the computers are required to commit to providing internet services and training to youth along with a US$30-$70 fee per computer. WCE then does a follow up visit to the organization to ensure that the donation is used for its intended purpose and not for someone’s individual gain.

“We want to make sure that those who want computers are serious. Some might say I want ten computers when I only need two. The fee is based on the quality and the speed of the computer”, said Mr. Aalmans,

“Sustainability must be built into the recipient organizations. Funding (for the provision of services) must be secured before the donation”

WCE facilitated the donation of 200 computers to Sierra Leone in 2005, but because of bureaucratic difficulties, getting clearances from the government of Sierra Leone, suspicious of that the shipment of used computers was potentially dangerous ‘e-waste’, the process took two years to complete.

The shipment also suffered from the loss of 30 of the 200 computers after the container was unsealed at the dock in Freetown. This loss meant that the donation had to be reorganized and recipients received fewer computers.

Saa Moses Lamin, coordinator of Waterloo based Youth in Action Sierra Leone, received 15 computers for his organization serving deprived children and youth in the Western rural district, Kono and in slums across Freetown. Youth in Action uses football as a means to attract children to their programs ranging from rights-based approaches to poverty alleviation and computer training.

“These children have very few choices in life, especially practical needs. We are engaged in helping youth live a better life, not just with football, but looking at the whole issue of youth poverty as a governance issue”, said Mr. Lamin.

“The traditional skills taught are not rewarding, like carpentry or tailoring. The youth want to learn about computers. We want to expose the kids and demystify the whole issue of computers to the children. Not being able to use a computer, I consider that illiteracy”, he said.

World Computer Exchange has been in operation for 15 years, working in 58 countries around the world. Each shipment of computers costs about US$12,000 and contains 200 computers. WCE is currently organizing its next shipment of computers to Sierra Leone, with shipping costs expected to be paid by charitable donation to ease the financial burden on recipient organizations.

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