Ken Starks lucky break didn’t show up in the way most people hope for. He owned a pressure washing business in Texas and a major accident led to the start of a technology project that would change the lives of children living in the hill country of Texas. Ken’s project, named Reglue, has now provided Linux computers to over a thousand disadvantaged kids. Reglue has also created learning centers throughout East Austin that teach computer skills and help with online job search tools.
I wanted to find out more about this turn of events in Ken’s life and how this whole thing came about so I caught up with him on Google+.
Q: Can you tell me how the project got started:
Ken: I started this effort in the spring of 2005 and I had no intention of doing so. I mean, I didn’t wake up one morning and decide, “Hey, I’m going to quit my six figure job and rebuild broken computers for disadvantaged kids”. After my injury, working in my profession was impossible.
That wasn’t even remotely in my life’s plan…but that’s exactly what happened. I fell 38 feet onto the concrete below while pressure washing a building. I owned a pressure washing company and did a lot of multi-story work. The fall fractured two vertebrae, both orbital (eye socket) areas, broke my nose, fractured my jaw and the impact damaged some of my inner ear.
Aside from that, I came away from it relatively unscathed.
While in a halo-fitted wheelchair my youngest daughter asked me how a computer worked. I told her to go get one and we would take it apart and see what makes it tick. I told her to get her mom’s because it was the oldest and it probably needed to be replaced anyway. There wasn’t going to be a big drama scene if I messed it up.
Once the case was open, I realized that it really was fairly simple…cheaply made components that only fit into one place. That means I couldn’t screw it up by putting the wrong piece in the wrong place. At the time. I was somewhat the technophobe so this should speak to others who think the inside of a computer is intimidating.
With that, I called a couple of my buddies and told them I wanted them to bring me old computers and I would try to fix them. What started out as a hobby to distract me from being trapped in this inquisition device, bloomed into “my lucky break”.
Pick any of those breaks. I had several to choose from…one of them was lucky.
This evolved from a place on my lap to a dining room table to my garage and then to a rented storage shed. Ultimately, we landed in Taylor Texas, in a building owned by the city of Taylor and given to us free of charge. Not the building but free use of the building for as long as we need it. They pay all of our bills and maintenance. We wouldn’t have been able to grow at the rate we have if it weren’t for the City of Taylor.
We started out as an organization named “The HeliOS Project. For the first several years, we gained non profit ability via an organization named Software in The Public Interest. They invite small efforts like ours that cannot afford the ever-growing costs of becoming an IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) to become an “associate project” under their umbrella. We were able to form our own non profit in 2010 but we must give Software in the Public Interest credit. Without their stamp of approval, we would never have evolved to what we are now. We are now an official. IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) named Reglue.
Q: Is everything there run by volunteers?
Ken: Yes. While I am the Executive Director and founder, I serve at the pleasure of my Board of Directors. I do not draw a salary. I live on my SSI monthly check. Reglue has grown too large to be trusted to one man making the sole decisions. There are 7 of us, to include myself and within those 7 reside other smaller groups, one of them being a 3 member financial oversight team. But the day-to-day operation is largely dependent upon myself and volunteers to keep the ship moving forward. We have a pool of over 100 volunteers, largely gained by our work with Lynn Bender and the Linux Against Poverty project.
Q: I’m wondering about the kids learning Linux. If they have had some computer experience at school they have probably used Windows or Mac OS…is it hard for them to transition?
Ken: Amazingly, not at all. After we experienced an absolutely disastrous start using Microsoft Windows, we’ve been a 100% Linux shop. We discovered early on that the worse disservice you can do to a child is underestimate her. In fact, it’s amusing to watch these kids as I show them around their new system. They all but tell me to get up and letthem do it. They absorb tech stuff like this in an almost scary span of time. Now, the parents…? They are a different story.
While we insist that a legal-age parent or guardian be present at all times when we are installing the computer, more often than not, their eyes glaze over about minute ten of the one hour-long introduction. Sadly, most people with two or three kids are not computer users. They are set-task-mouse-clickers.
More often, they know how to operate a computer at work, doing their jobs but outside of that, they are lost when presented a new environment or task. We’ve even had cases where live-in boyfriends or other friends put a pirated copy of Windows on the computer. Then, it’s only a matter of hours that I get a phone call, complaining that all of little Julie’s cool games and educational apps are gone. They have no idea that allowing someone to install Windows over the top of the Linux environment will completely remove it. They just thought that it would be an available option.
Now, before we even set one piece of equipment in the house, we must discuss the stipulations of receiving the computer. Number one…if they install another operating system over the original, we will not come to the home and fix it, nor will we support that computer in any way. Our “Reglue Kids” have us for the span of their entire education. We currently have 5 people entering graduate school that we gave computers to when they were in high school. Upon each level of achievement such as from high school to college or from undergraduate to graduate studies, we supply them with a new computer. It’s not a “once-done-and-done thing. We make sure those kids have the tools they need to compete in every step of their academic career.
Q: What makes a child eligible for a computer?
Ken: There is no chiseled-in-stone matrix for eligibility. There are so many factors to take into account, a decision like this has to be made on a case by case basis. So a single mom of three is working two jobs in order to support her family. Sure, on paper she looks like she’s living large on $4000.00 a month, but once you consider all of her outgoing money, it boils down to making some tough decisions.
Is it getting the car repaired this month or is it a computer?
Is it getting Ronnie’s dentist appointment or is it a computer?
Is it money for Tammie’s school outing or is it a new computer?
Is it new shoes for all the kids or is it a computer?
The computer always comes in last. We’re not going to allow that to happen. if Mom is busting her bum trying to make ends meet, we are going to make sure that a computer, or even two computers are available to her. Most times, we get referrals from past candidates, but often we get our referrals from child welfare case workers, ministers policemen or first responders, juvenile case workers and yes, even teachers. Teachers need to be careful because they can lose their job over a decision like this so we make sure no one knows where we got their names. We leave it at “an Anonymous Source”.
Q: Do you have any remote location drop offs or is this strictly in the Austin area?
Ken: We are in Taylor so we have to come in to town once every two weeks or so to pick ups. The Learning Pad, a vocational school in North Austin takes our equipment donations now. Kenneth, the Director of The Learning Pad has been a great friend to our project. We used to have 2 but they’ve closed so The Learning Pad is the only one we have left.
Q: Are there plans for Reglue to start in other locations?
Ken: Not officially. In that I am still recovering from throat cancer treatments, I have to manage my time much more than in the past. It has been gratifying though, to have received dozens of emails over the years, asking us how to get started and what some of the pitfalls can be. We’ve seen projects like ours grow on 5 continents. They aren’t affiliated with Reglue but they pattern their project after ours. Fact is, I was getting so many requests like this that I wrote an article on some of the important things to take into consideration. It’s not exactly a “how-to” but it outlines some of the important stuff to take into consideration. It can be found here for those that might be interested.
Since starting the project in 2005 1,102 kids have been given computers. In 2010 SXSW Interactive honored Ken with the Dewey Winburne Community Service Award. For more information on this project and for ways you can help put technology into the hands of kids that wouldn’t have it otherwise click here.
Feature image courtesy of earthholisticeducation.webs.com used for reference only