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Free Computers a Godsend to Churches

By Mike Wendland
The Detroit Free Press
September 20, 2004

In a tiny storefront church on John R called the Harp of God late last month,
one of the pastors wrote down a simple prayer request and put it on the altar.

"Please God, we need some computers and the Internet so we can train and
connect our people," senior pastor Connie Foster recalled.

"It was a prayer of desperation," Foster said of the request, submitted by
associate pastor Dorothy Miller. "We knew we needed them to reach out to the
community around us. But we are in the inner city and we have no money, and
there was absolutely no way other than God to meet this need."

Less than a week later -- "out of the blue," as Foster said -- the phone rang.
It was a community assistance official from Wayne County, telling her of a
program the county wanted to start to help low-income churches and community
centers get connected with technology.

A week after that, two refurbished Dell computers were brought over by county
officials, and Comcast Cable came in and wired them both to the Internet --
for free.

"Don't tell us that God doesn't answer prayers," Foster said.

Harp of God is one of seven sites now up and running with refurbished
government computers -- PCs that would have been scrapped otherwise. Forty
more sites have applied and will soon get theirs.

Angela Williams, who runs the new Connecting the Partners program, says the
goal is to have 1,000 sites by next year.

"This is just such an awesome thing," she said. "There are so many places that
need technology but have no other way of getting it."

Williams said that besides Comcast, which installs a complete wireless
Internet hookup for each location, Dell and Microsoft have agreed to provide
support and software for the surplus computers.

One of the first places to benefit from the program was the Saunders Memorial
AME Church off Mack on Detroit's east side, which received two computers in
early summer. Almost every day, that's where you'll find Tiffany Robertson,
21, a single mom of three. She's taking online courses from the University of
Phoenix.

"I could not be taking these classes if these computers weren't here," she
said. "I'm doing all I can just to get by, and there's no way I could afford a
computer and Internet access at my home. But with the church now hooked up,
I'm a college student."

Her skills at the computer are being passed on to other church members -- a
goal of the program.

"The idea is to make them training centers," Williams said. "Technology and
computer skills are now essential for the workplace. These computers can make
a real difference in people's lives."

The program's only catch is that the recipients must be able to demonstrate a
financial need and have someone available to oversee the online activities. If
the computers break down, Dell has promised to fix them for free.

Besides surplus government computers, the county plans to seek castoffs from
big corporations.

"There are an awful lot of computers that are just scrapped or lying around in
storage," Williams said. "But with a little refurbishing work, they still have
lots of life in them that can be put to very good use by people who just can't
afford to buy one themselves."

Companies that have equipment to donate or Wayne County churches and civic
groups that would like to get a refurbished computer can find out more by
calling 866-445-4355, toll free.

Contact MIKE WENDLAND at 313-222-8861 or mwendland@freepress.com.