By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
Personal computers topped the Christmas wish list of many students this season, and, thanks to a Georgia 4-H program, 14 of them got their wish. Santa didn't have to a pay a dime.
The Need-A-Computer Program began six years ago as the brainchild of Rachel McCarthy, a 4-H member in Walton County. She and her father Jim refurbished donated computers for needy 4-H'ers in her home county. When she graduated, her sister Amanda inherited the project.
Program goes statewide
In 2003, the Georgia 4-H Youth Technology Leadership Team took the project to the state level. The team awarded 20 computers that year and 11 more in 2004.
"This year, we had 14 computers donated, primarily from George Walton Academy in Monroe," said Cheryl Varnadoe, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension 4-H specialist and the technology leadership team's coordinator.
The team accepts computer donations all year and stores them in a room donated by Storage Mart. In early December, they refurbish the computers for the winning applicants. This includes loading them with licensed software programs.
"Most of the computers are two or three years old," Varnadoe said. "We don't accept older computers because we want to give the students computers that will be capable of running their programs and pulling up the Internet."
To apply for a free computer, students must be a 4-H member and a fifth- through eighth-grade student. The student must fill out an application and write an essay detailing why they want and need a computer. They submit letters of reference from their teachers, pastors and community leaders.
This year, the tech team got 50 applications for the 14 computers. They reviewed and ranked the letters before selecting the yearly winners. Finally, the week before Christmas, they delivered the computers.
The winning students also write thank-you letters to the program donors and the 4-H technology leadership team.
Touching lives, helping students
Scanning the thank-you letters, Varnadoe reads notes that unveil each student's story.
"Amanda from Fitzgerald says she's always wanted a computer and is deeply honored that she was chosen," Varnadoe said. "Kevin from Alma feels fortunate to have been selected and says his computer is 'the coolest.' Jackson from Walton County says getting his computer is a dream come true, and he promises to take care of it so it will last for years."
Varnadoe said one computer went to a student whose single mother shares a household with another single mother. Between the two, they're raising eight children without fathers.
"One child's parent is disabled," she said. "Another's parent is mentally challenged."
Last year, the technology team awarded a computer to a blind student. The local Lions Club donated the equipment needed to convert the computer to a braille system.
Members of the 4-H technology team or collegiate 4-H'ers deliver the computers to the local UGA Extension office. The 4-H agent then takes it to the student and helps him or her set it up.
"Jim McCarthy also volunteers his time to serve as the students' personal tech support," Varnadoe said. "This way, they have a troubleshooter they can call for help."
Donate your old PC
If you're interested in donating a computer, it must have at least:
* A Pentium III processor
* 256 megabytes of memory
* 20 gigabytes of hard drive space
* A Windows 98 or later operating system.
Computers should include a 15-inch or larger monitor, keyboard and mouse. They should be Internet-ready, but don't have to have modems.
"We want the students to be able to use the computer to access the Internet," Varnadoe said. "Modems are inexpensive, and many county offices have generated local funds to buy modems for their winning student."
For more information, or to apply for the 2006 Need-a- Computer program, see the program's Web site, www.georgia4h.org/public/edops/techteam/default.htm.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)