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Baltimore nonprofit collects guns for Google Chromebook laptops

Guns-for-computers exchange program deterred by heavy police presence in Baltimore.

As the lyrics of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" echoed through the wooden rafters of the historic Orchard Street Church on Saturday, Richard Wilson stood in a line waiting to pick up a Google Chromebook computer in exchange for turning in a gun to Baltimore police.

The 66-year-old Windsor Mills resident grew up attending services at the church and was happy to return as part of an effort to remove guns from homes while highlighting computer-related careers for Baltimore's youth.

Wilson turned in his late father's .38-caliber snubnose revolver to officers dressed in military-looking green S.W.A.T. uniforms outside the church before climbing the steps to the church to collect his Chromebook.

The heavy police presence — including blocking off vehicle traffic with cruisers and police tape at each end of the 500 block of Orchard Street — contributed to low turnout for the event, said Lance Lucas, chief executive of Digit All Systems and organizer of the exchange. The group collected 17 guns Saturday.

The nonprofit had 70 computers to give away. Last year, the group — which trains young people in computer technician skills — collected 37 guns. During the past three years, the group has collected 106 guns in exchange for computers.

"We still got 17 guns off the street, so I'm happy about that," Lucas said.

Wilson said he no longer had any use for his father's gun and was worried that one day his grandchildren might find it. Turning it in for a computer was a good idea, he added.

"I can give the computer to one of the grandkids," Wilson said.

That's exactly the type of result Lucas was hoping to see.

"The goal of this effort is to highlight how computers and technology offer a pathway to success for youth, over grimmer alternatives involving the use of firearms and gun-related violence," Lucas wrote in a release promoting the event.

His group trains young people in computer repair and networking skills, helping them to attain certifications that can lead to high-paying jobs both in the public and private sectors. Lucas points to 23-year-old Tracie Leonard as an example of how the lure of computers can overcome the lure of guns.

Leonard was living in the Rose Street Youth Shelter with his twin brother, Trayvon, at age 17 when he encountered Lucas' program. Leonard achieved his personal computer technician certification just a couple months after graduating from Achievement Academy at Harbor City High School.

He was still homeless when he started going to Baltimore City Community College, carrying his possessions with him to school. He dropped out and focused on his computer technician skills, joined Digit All as a trainer and started his own repair and networking business in 2013 called StreetGeekz.

With his eyes framed by a pair of Google Glass, Leonard talks passionately about how computers have given him a livelihood that he hopes will appeal to other young people looking for a way out of poverty.

Maurice Hawkins, who turned in an old Ruger pistol of his own, said he was impressed by the program but was not convinced it was taking guns away from troubled youth.

"I'm hoping a lot of young guys will come in," said Hawkins, 44, an engineer who lives in the Owings Mills area. "You can't kill anyone if you don't have a gun."

He said he saw two young men turn and walk away from the church once they saw the police presence.

J. Howard Henderson, chief executive of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, located at the church, said he knew the program was unlikely to get guns out of the hands of troubled youth. But he said such programs help to get guns out of homes, which is also important. The most critical element was to promote the path to attaining a career in computers.

"It's a good thing for the community," Henderson said.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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