Friday, August 12, 2011

Know Your Volunteers: Harley and Isaiah

This week I was zipping around the warehouse with fistfuls of parts, looking for the right power supply for any of the half-dozen ancient palmtops that I was trying to work my way through, when I saw this pair working at the Printer Test station:

Harley and Isaiah

I love seeing kids at Free Geek Vancouver. We're contributing to the Nerd Army of the Future.

We've had a few school groups come through, and as soon as they arrive it's Battle Stations -- Geoff (after a momentary expression of terror) suddenly reverts to his past life as a teacher, Jessica uses her considerable powers of  projection to keep everyone browbeaten into an approximation of productivity, and from my safe vantage point in the mezzanine, it sounds like a colony of seagulls has discovered the mother lode of discarded french fries in the warehouse and is having a tremendous party. After a period of chaos they leave and the place is shockingly, stunningly quiet and everyone looks a little hung over.

But I especially love seeing kids come in when it's a family affair. In an environment like Free Geek, with one-on-one mentorship, there is an enormous potential for exploration and experimentation. Many of the career geeks at Free Geek started at a young age, and personally, I can't think of a better environment to really instill an early passion and curiosity about technology -- admit it or not, it's a big nerdy play room and getting up to your elbows in computer parts is about as empowering as it gets. The stakes are low, as long as everyone plays safe; the worst that happens is some donated equipment gets broken.

We've had a few family groups come in before, some of whom I've worked with -- a mother/son team who were really into origami and who I hope will return sometime on a Thursday, and an entire Korean family with very little English but enthusiasm that amply compensated -- but I rarely get the chance to talk with them about their reasons for coming in. Harley and Isaiah graciously set aside an ancient fax/printer that they were testing and spoke with me for a few minutes.

Harley and Isaiah are the dream team. Harley's got a lot of experience under his belt; he described his skills humbly but when I interrupted him he was already midway through testing an old pre-USB printer that suggested more. It turns out he's a blogger as well -- see for the full story. As part of a homeschooling curriculum he's already started Isaiah on the finer points of computer disassembly at home and Isaiah is already pretty handy with a screwdriver. Thus the pair is basically self-contained -- and there's problem solving aplenty for two people.

Harley, being a community-minded sort, is involved with the Boys & Girls Club and an after-school club at a local school. He was asked to put together a "geek course" and thus came into contact with Free Geek for the first time. Unfortunately between summer vacations last year and other details this hasn't happened -- yet -- but this summer, with a month to spend and a kid to raise, he decided to start volunteering regularly for a number of reasons: the ethical and environmental sides of recycling, the educational opportunities for Isaiah, and of course the chance to work with old gear and thus relive some of his own geek past -- though I hope he doesn't start crank-calling people with his modem again, at least not with the Free Geek fax line.

Harley is pretty clear-headed about the importance of getting Isaiah educated in technology from a young age. He anticipates the possibilities available to someone who can work wherever there's Internet -- that is to say, anywhere -- and the freedom that confers. His dream, coming as the days start to shorten on an especially reclusive Vancouver summer, is to live and work somewhere tropical. A laptop on a beach and an otherwise simple existence.

I caught them on their first day of volunteering, so Isaiah was still getting oriented (and from the looks of it not enjoying the mandatory gloves much). But having spent the day removing the hard drives from a bunch of surplus Toughbooks, I was feeling about 10 years old myself -- I had discovered the gelatin-like casing that they use as a shock absorber for the hard drive:

I spent all morning racking my brains for the appropriate thing to do with these...

So for lack of a better idea, I gave one to Isaiah, who immediately began stretching it like a giant elastic. This may come back to haunt me.

Next Thursday -- time and volunteers permitting -- I'll see how they like disassembling laptops to remove hard drives and RAM. This might be the perfect job for a kid who's good with a screwdriver -- every laptop is different, some can be frustrating, and it really gets you thinking about how they work and how they're put together.

Harley sees huge potential for Free Geek to educate kids, and he's absolutely right. The only thing Free Geek has sometimes been lacking is enough people, staff or volunteers, to help guide and mentor -- but when a family comes in ready to work, I say we roll out the red carpet.

1 comment:

  1. And I forgot to say it outright: these two are awesome.


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