Used computers are stacked from floor to ceiling in Ron Cooper's corner of a sweltering, cramped U.S. Department of Agriculture warehouse in Landover. Each day, more arrive--up to 1,000 a week from USDA and 17 other agencies.
These computers, no longer wanted by federal employees, are destined for schools and nonprofit education groups. As children return to school in the coming days, many will find equipment in their classrooms donated by the federal government through the Computers for Learning program.
At first, agencies merely handed their surplus computers over to the General Services Administration. Many times, machines would spend months on the shelf while the schools waited for the promised computers.
Launched by Vice President Gore nearly two years ago, the Computers for Learning program now allows government agencies to donate surplus computers directly to schools and nonprofits. The centerpiece of the program is a Web site, www.computers.fed.gov, where those in need of computers can post their requests and government agencies can respond in short order.
While some departments, such as Education and Defense, handle their own computer programs, USDA manages one for 17 other agencies. When the trucks unload computers at Cooper's door, he and his assistant assess their condition: Those that would take too much time for his two-person team to repair are sent to schools or nonprofits that operate computer repair programs. The rest are repaired, upgraded and readied for shipment around the country.
Cooper was a warehouse supervisor when he was approached by his boss late in 1997 about the Computers for Learning program. After one school received only one usable machine out of nearly 40 delivered, Cooper decided he would oversee the program, and he would do it differently.
"At first, people would donate trash that didn't work," he said.
Now, the USDA ensures that the machines that go through its warehouse are ready for schools and nonprofits to plug in.
Cooper spends his days managing the computer network at the warehouse, modernizing USDA's inventory process and managing the computer program. Poring over the Web site's database, he selects schools with high student-to-computer ratios, high percentages of students on assisted-lunch programs and other, similar factors, all of which indicate the school district isn't likely to have money for computers. The federal program places top priority on schools in impoverished areas.
A study by the Commerce Department showed that those with greatest access to the Internet and computers are mostly high-income white Americans. Computers for Learning is trying to extend access to others Americans.
For instance, the program is helping TechnoTots, a nonprofit group in Perth Amboy, N.J., which offers computer classes to children ages 2 to 5. The 40 surplus federal computers the organization received allowed it to expand services beyond the very young. Now the group also offers seminars in Microsoft Word and Windows for adults and has a room dedicated to open computer access to anyone in the community.
Computers "give them a window to the world. It's extremely empowering," said Stephanie McIntyre, TechnoTots director.
In the Washington area alone, nearly 600 schools and nonprofit organizations have registered with the Computers for Learning Web site. Shaw Junior High School in Northwest D.C. recently received 28 computers from the USDA. Cooper received dozens of thank-you letters in return.
Several students wrote saying they hoped the computers would help them "become something some day." One student wrote, "It is good that we got new computers because it shows that someone wants us to have better."
Cooper wishes he could send all the computers they want, but with more requests than machines, he tries to spread the wealth. Looking at a request for 80 computers, Cooper says he'll probably send half.
"Really, space and manpower are our only limitations," Cooper said, "We hope we'll make enough people happy that they'll staff us."
CAPTION: Ron Cooper, manager for the USDA's section of the Computers for Learning program, checks over a unit as expediter Eugene McGruder looks on.