Lifestyles Northwest article

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Below is a story about Free Geek that ran in Lifestyles Northwest (a seniors-oriented Portland publication) in March, 2006. Written by Merry MacKinnon. A good example of a story that emphasizes the community aspect of Free Geek. -Pete

Computer nerds, and proud of it

Portland's Free Geek program teaches seniors how to build computers by Merry MacKinnon, Lifestyles contributor

Two years ago, 79-year-old Jim Cox knew a lot more about grafting twigs onto a McIntosh apple tree than he did about piecing together the insides of a computer.

But now that he is a volunteer at a Portland-based community technology center, the retired Nabisco deliveryman routinely creates first-rate computers from a hodgepodge of recycled parts.

Cox embarked on a quest to become computer literate after feeling helpless every time his spouse's computer malfunctioned.

"My wife's computer would crash seven times a day," Cox recalls. "I didn't know a thing about computers."

But he soon ascended a steep learning curve upon responding to an ad seeking volunteers at Free Geek, a nonprofit that offers technology training and a refurbished computer in exchange for community service. At first Cox did a variety of tasks at Free Geek's inner Southeast Portland center.

There, in an effort to reduce clutter and contamination in landfills, donated computers are recycled - either disassembled for parts, or refurbished and sold at Free Geek's thrift store or donated to individuals, schools, libraries and other organizations here and overseas.

Upon accumulating 24 hours of volunteer work at Free Geek, Cox initially earned a rebuilt computer loaded with free software. Now, having clocked 1,000 hours of service, he's received additional computers, one of which he gave to his granddaughter: Not bad for nine hours a week of good fellowship, sharing knowledge with other volunteers.

"You can't help but make new friends," Cox says.

His advice to others his age is unequivocal: "If they have a spark of life left in them, figure out a way to get to this place."

Free Geek is housed in a complex of rooms inside a sprawling building at 1731 S.E. 10 Ave., where donated computers are tagged, disassembled and parts saved, reassembled, sold or shipped out to be further recycled. Free Geek's alertness to computers' toxic components means no one is allowed to work on computer monitors, because of lead and other hazardous heavy metals inside.

"Monitors either work or don't work," says Cox.

Though he often conducts noon hour tours of Free Geek's no-frills facility, Cox is normally found stationed by a wall-long work bench in a back room where nearby cartons of cables and circuit boards are stacked on metal shelves. Working next to him is another volunteer, retired university math professor Charles McCarthy.

"It's not hard to build computers," assures McCarthy.

"At Free Geek, the driving force is your own initiative," adds Cox.

photo caption

Until two years ago, Jim Cox knew nothing about computers. Then, after volunteering at Free Geek, he learned all about computers, including how to build them, at the nonprofit technology center in Portland.


It's all Geek to them

  • Free Geek welcomes volunteers of all backgrounds. It offers tours every Tuesday through Saturday at noon and 6pm, and new volunteers can sign up after the tour.
  • Free Geek's thrift store sells refurbished computers and computer parts at very affordable prices. The thrift store will offer seniors 60 and older a 25-percent discount March 21-31.
  • Hours of ooperation (for volunteering, donating computers and thrift store) are 11am to 7pm Tuesday through Saturday.
  • Free Geek phone number: 503-232-9350.
  • Web site:
  • General e-mail: