Reduce, Reuse and Refurbish - A Leadership Profile with Pat Furr

Pat Furr receiving the Jim Lynch Award.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Jodi Mulligan

Welcome to another in a series of profiles of emerging and established leaders in our community. Our featured leader for August is Pat Furr, the Founder and President of Computers for Classrooms (CFC). CFC was founded in 1991 as a volunteer program to refurbish donated computers for schools. Since its inception it has placed 5,000 computers in classrooms across the state and into the hands of low-income families and seniors in need. Pat has a background in teaching, business, public service as an elected school district trustee, and computers as a graduate of the CSU, Chico Master's program in Computer Science.

I read that you were invited to receive an award from the Sacramento City Unified School District for giving out computers to middle school children. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Actually we ended up handing out 1,000 computers over a two-to-three year period and we did this with schools that had a very high percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch program. We were able to reach kids in Sacramento, Yuba City, Marysville and Chico.

More recently, we have been working to bring computers and low-cost Internet services to students at the Language Arts Academy and to schools in Rancho Cordova. We go to many different schools once or twice a year and help students to get low-cost computers – we’re usually invited by the principals. We also attend different school functions like fairs or back-to-school nights and use the opportunities to bring in the actual computers to display to people and to show them how they work. We also work with digital literacy teachers that help families in the classroom and they also take their orders after teaching them how to use things like laptops and wireless adaptersOur program has been in business for 23 years now, helping low-income families get access to low-cost refurbished laptops, desktop computers, printers, speakers, etc. 

Computers for Classrooms also has a Computers for Seniors program. Why is it important that seniors have access to low-cost computers? 

Seniors are one of the groups that have the least access to computers and the Internet in the home. We see this even more with seniors from Hispanic, Sikh and Hmong communities so we try to find ways to work with everyone.

We were recently selected by Eden Housing in San Francisco to supply computers to their residents. Eden Housing builds affordable housing communities for lower income families, seniors and people living with disabilities. The computers CFC supplies are loaded with programs that are not only good for students, but they are also good for seniors. You can start with simple programs that teach you how to use your computer and then you are off on a virtual tour of the Smithsonian. Also, each computer has a one-year warranty so we can assist seniors if any issues arise.

I recently heard you speak about some challenges you are having getting state agency departments to utilize your nonprofit for computer disposal. Tell us more about that.   

Only 15% of the states computers are refurbished. The other 85% are recycled. I am concerned! I am also a taxpayer. CFC is desperate to reuse the computers for schools and low-income families first. We recently worked with a school that had to take a pass on the Common Core testing because their computers could not support the online testing system. Computers for Classrooms was able to help them get set up with updated computer systems.

We try to do the very best job in helping state agencies. California requires that all government issued computers be wiped before they go out for recycling. We want to ensure that that is happening and also have the chance to refurbish some of these computers so that we can provide them to classrooms and families.

Computers for Classrooms offer various services for wiping these computers. We will pick up the e-waste, use a system called Blancco to wipe all hard drives, we do asset tracking, provide audit trails and are the only self-sustaining non-profit that is doing this. CFC is currently working with California Victim’s Compensation as they are going through upgrades. We are going to provide an audit of every hard drive that is wiped along with serial numbers, which will provide an extra layer of security for some sensitive information. I am also meeting with the State’s Chief Information Officers to get them on board.

What sets your organization apart from other e-waste recyclers and collection centers? 

We do both. Refurbishing is our primary work and we function from the idea that we use whatever we can and we don’t send things to landfills. We are the first nonprofit to get R2 certified as responsible recyclers. We offer free asset tracking and hard drive tracking reports. It is unusual to have a refurbisher that is also a recycler.

We use volunteers to sort e-waste into different kinds of commodities. We don’t exist under government grants and are a self-sustaining program, which allows us to keep dropping prices for the people that need computers and can’t otherwise afford them. We also serve as a model to other refurbishers because we are part of Chico’s school district which helps drive old computer equipment into our warehouse. State agencies have to donate old equipment to organizations that are approved on the form 152. We want to teach other school districts and refurbishers to do the same thing throughout the state. Most schools can’t accept the quantities of all the e-waste that agencies provide so we can help guide them through this process.

My hope is to educate state agencies to look for ways to reuse not just recycle. For example, things like iPhone’s can be reused and not recycled. There are 2 million children that do not have access to computers. These agencies think their computers are junk and they are not. These computers can be used by families that need them and Computers for Classrooms can make that happen.

If you could say one piece of advice to a child, what would it be?

People keep asking me why I am not retired. I keep coming up with new ideas and new ways for solving problems. I have also taken the time to try new and different things like raising horses and doing dressage or playing tennis. I have raised two great kids; two granddaughters and now we are onto great grandkids. Don’t feel like you have to be in a box all your life and just don’t be afraid to do something different, to do something else. My granddaughter went into art history and I moaned and groaned about this but she is now doing great things working for an insurance company. She is taking additional classes to move up in her company, she owns her own home and she isn’t even 30 yet.

This leadership profile was facilitated by Jodi Mulligan, Project Associate leading the Broadband Portfolio.