Community Spotlight: An Interview with Free Geek

Free Geek is one of Portland’s most successful nonprofits, providing computers and other technology for free or for a low cost to community members. Free Geek is all about learning as well, offering a wide variety of educational classes to everyone, and espousing an open source ideology.


We’ve reached out to Darren Heiber, Director of Public Services at Free Geek, with some important questions.


Q: What is the greatest benefit to the community that you think Free Geek provides?

A: Gosh, it’s hard to say the greatest benefit as Free Geek is accomplishing so much for our community. We’re very proud of the fact that individuals and businesses are able to bring almost all of their electronic devices to one place for reuse, and ethical recycling when reuse isn’t an option. By putting our emphasis on reuse, we’re able to make sure we have the lowest environmental impact of any e-waste recyclers while keeping these materials in-use in our local community through our Thrift Store and Hardware Grants.


The Thrift Store offers reasonably-priced computers, related technology, A/V equipment, video game systems, and all sorts of other items that are repurposed. Not only does this reduce the consumer’s impact on the environment, it also reduces the impact on your wallet. Our Hardware Grants program provides for the computer and technology needs of hundreds of nonprofits, schools, religious and community change organizations annually. This helps make it possible for them to use their precious funding directly on their mission, instead of related technology needs.




Ultimately, though, our biggest impact is on an individual level. Between our volunteer, educational, and ethical materials handling, we affect the lives of well over a thousand people a month. This list includes the family that wants to make sure their e-waste isn’t going into a landfill or third world country to be burned in open pits, but has no idea where to bring their old TV. It also includes the volunteer who retired from teaching computer science at PSU and is learning about hardware for the first time by building computers for schools and nonprofits through our Build Program. Not to mention the volunteer who has never touched a computer in her life and is able to give 24 hours of her time helping us take apart severely-outdated desktop systems in exchange for a free computer, a class that teaches her how to use it, and a year of free tech support in case she can’t figure something out or a component fails. We’re incredibly proud when this volunteer comes back to tell us that we helped her start her online business or get the skills she needs to be successful in an increasingly digital workplace.


Q: What has Free Geek done to help out local small businesses?

A: Free Geek is an amazing resource for small businesses. Many choose to use our recycling services because they know they’re helping the community and environment, while also getting a tax break for donating their hardware. Choosing a 501(c)3 organization is the best and easiest way to realize value from your outdated technology. We’ve talked to a lot of small business owners who shop exclusively in our store for their technology needs as they’re able to find quality, inexpensive hardware while supporting a community organization committed to providing technology access and workplace readiness skills to a local underserved population.


Q: Which type of class would you suggest for someone relatively inexperienced with computers?

div_creative_freegeek_2A: We often offer a computer basics course that teaches students the absolute fundamentals of computers. This is excellent if you have never touched a computer before or really want to start from the very beginning. Otherwise, I highly recommend you take our Introduction to LibreOffice Writer course, where you can learn the basics of word processing while working on your own resume. This is a wonderful project-oriented way to learn about using computers while also getting something done that can help you find quality work.


Of course, as we do more and more online, it’s incredibly important to ensure you’re as safe as possible. Everyone should take our Anatomy of a Hack class to learn how even those who should know better are tricked into revealing personal information online.


Q: If someone is unable to contribute manpower to your organization, what is the best way to support FreeGeek?

A: We are a self-funded nonprofit with over 60% of our annual revenue coming through sales in our Thrift Store and via eBay and Amazon. Currently, about 15% of our revenue comes from the financial support of our community. The best ways you can help out are to bring us your reusable technology (especially laptops, smartphones and tablets), shopping with us, reminding friends about our services, or donating online. Every $40 you give helps us get that many more students into our free classes.


Q: How do you think your use of free Linux OS and other open source software has impacted local computer users? Has it converted anyone to open source material in general?

A: We’ve been big proponents of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) since our inception, and we’re going to continue to trumpet its advantages. We love it because it provides accessible and free options to those who don’t have the money to afford expensive software suites like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. It also tends to be virus-resistant and an excellent learning platform.


Prior volunteers who are now programming at some local and international organizations have told us that they first learned about FOSS through Free Geek and that our free classes helped them understand the landscape of programming. Many of our volunteers who got free computers by volunteering 24 hours in our Adoption Program or by building five computers in our Build Program told us that this was their first Linux machine. When they come back to volunteer, often because they love the community or can’t wait to learn more, they’re proud to boast that they don’t see a reason to go back to Windows or Apple operating systems.


Q: What is one thing that you’d most like the readers of this interview to know?

A: There’s a place for everyone at Free Geek, no matter how much or little you know about computers. We offer volunteer and learning opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. If you haven’t yet come to visit us at 1731 SE 10th Ave in Portland, please come by to bring us your outdated technology, shop in our Thrift Store, or take a free class. We’d love it if you could time your trip to catch our volunteer orientation tours at 11am or 4pm Tuesday-Saturday so you can get a behind the scenes look at what’s going on at Free Geek, even if you aren’t able to come in and volunteer.


To contact Free Geek, visit them at 1731 SE 10th Ave Tues-Sat from 10 am to 6 pm, or call (503) 232-9350.


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Other Community Spotlight Posts: Park and RecreationThe Blind Cafe, Portland Community College, Farmers Markets