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‘The answer is in the trash’: PCs for People works to close Baltimore’s yawning digital divide

Since last summer, Gary Bonner, the executive director of PCs for People, has been trying to help close the digital divide in Baltimore. Roughly 90,000 homes in Baltimore do not have access to internet services and 75,000 homes do not have a desktop or laptop computer, making it difficult for residents to go to school or apply for jobs, according to the Abell Foundation.

In his role, the 55-year-old Mount Washington resident tries to track down people who do not have computers and tablets in their household and want them. The company repurposes donated electronics and places them in the hands of residents at little or no cost.

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“Our employees wipe the devices and or take some parts to rebuild devices,” he said.

All the devices come with lifetime tech support. Metals and plastics are reused or melted so that nothing ends up in a landfill.

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“The lack of understanding the economy digitally is what is holding people back in Baltimore and other urban areas, and it is a solvable problem,” Bonner said. “The answer is in the trash.”

Gary Bonner, 55, at the PCs for People office.
Gary Bonner, 55, at the PCs for People office. (Courtesy of Gary Bonner)

Founded in 1998, PCs for People operates in markets such as Denver, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Kansas City, Missouri.

In 2020, the organization expanded to Baltimore.

“The need in Baltimore is an emergency,” Bonner said. “More than 40% of Baltimoreans earn less than the living wage.”

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In Baltimore, the minimum wage is $11.75 per hour — about $24,000 when working full time. A “survival budget” for a family of four in Maryland is $69,672, according to a 2018 study by the United Way of Central Maryland. In Baltimore, 47% of families make less than $64,392, the study found.

In June, the organization opened its 10,000-square-foot factory on Biddle Street in East Baltimore.

The task was daunting.

“There were tens of thousands of students in Baltimore who were expected to go to school online,” he said.

Bonner estimates that roughly 7,000 Baltimore City school students did not have access to either a device or the internet.

“We’ve been able to provide 2,126 devices and 1,000 hot spots,” he said.

At first, it was a challenge to find people willing to donate. For the first contribution, Bonner drove to Cleveland to pick up 230 devices from a donor.

The organization also works with the Baltimore Department of Social Services to provide devices to teens who are about to age out of the foster care system as well as organizations that work with older adults to bring technology into senior homes.

E-waste is the fastest-growing municipal waste stream in the United States, according to the global nonprofit DoSomething.org. Only 12.5% of electronics are recycled.

Every day now, Bonner said, people stop by the factory to donate their old devices. Donations from residents make up 20% of the electronics they receive.

“I was pleasantly surprised by that,” Bonner said.

The other donations come from corporate partners such as The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, which is headquartered in Towson.

A team of 11 employees and volunteers, most of whom are Baltimore natives, are outfitting old computers with new hard drives and processors and updating phones, a process that takes roughly two weeks.

Reggie Price, 31 has been at PCs for People for six months. He was introduced to the organization through a local workforce development program called Pass IT On, which helps close the gap in technology skills for youth and adults who live in underserved communities.

Price started as an intern and is now a full-time computer technician.

“This is my first [computer] networking gig,” Price said. “What attracted me was getting my hands on technical training and being able to serve my community.”

Yasmine Baldwin, 22, came to PCs for People through a mentorship program. She was hired two weeks ago as a customer service representative.

She said the guidance Bonner provides has made her experience enjoyable.

“He has no problem with me asking questions,” Baldwin said. “I can ask questions all day long and he will walk me from steps one through 38.”

Bonner said he cherishes the memories he has growing up in Pikesville.

“It was magical for me to grow up as an African American man,” he said. “Baltimore prepared me to go off to college.”

Bonner went on to study at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. In Washington, D.C., he worked as a chief operating officer for Azure Healthcare Services, which provides support for adults living with traumatic brain injuries and developmental challenges. He then moved to Chicago, where he was the director of corporate education programs for the Wiley Global Education Services, leading developmental programs for colleges and universities.

In 2015, Bonner moved back to Baltimore after his father died. While in Baltimore, he decided to give back to the community that shaped him.

“If you do not have an understanding of how to use a computer or how to use the internet, then you could be stuck in a job that does not pay a livable wage,” he said.

Bonner said he wants to dedicate the rest of his life to helping close the digital divide.

“Lack of digital access is more than a COVID issue,” he said. “We have so much demand and not enough devices to meet that demand.”

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

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