Restoring old computers to state of the art circa 1985 may sound futile, but it has helped a 3-year-old Columbia-based charity achieve worldwide renown.
Tomorrow, the Lazarus Foundation -- a group of volunteers who refurbish old computers and give them to needy children, schools and charities -- will be sending six reconditioned computers to a Peace Corps volunteer in Latvia.
And April 29, the foundation will distribute more than 200 restored computers to schools, preschools, community service organizations, Head Start programs and pediatric wards in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington.
The computer donations will open a three-day national conference on computer recycling and mentoring that the foundation is sponsoring at the National 4-H Conference Center in Bethesda -- the foundation's first such effort.
By contemporary standards, the equipment being given away is dinosaur-like: IBM-compatible 286 computers with monochrome monitors, floppy disk drives and 20-megabyte hard drives.
But for those on shoestring budgets, the computers promise the same benefits that business and government groups gained a decade or so ago when they first used the machines.
Peace Corps volunteer Douglas E. MacKinnon -- based in Ogre, Latvia -- discovered Lazarus through an article in Chronicle of Philanthropy.
"The equipment you are able to provide, although used, is going to be the very latest technology here and will easily satisfy the needs of the community," he said in an e-mail message to Lazarus volunteer William A. Thies Jr., administrative assistant to county administrator Raquel Sanudo.
Earlier, Mr. MacKinnon had told Donald Bard of Hickory Ridge, founder and president of Lazarus, that "schools [in Ogre] barely have resources for tables and chairs, much less computers. I know there is probably a very long waiting list but I assure you that very few others on your list are as needy as the children of Ogre."
The biggest problem for the Lazarus Foundation was not in finding the computers for Ogre, but in getting them overseas. After nearly a year of battling bureaucracies, the foundation has been able to send the computers on a containership that will leave Baltimore tomorrow.
Most small organizations don't need the latest computer, but just a computer to do word processing and spreadsheets, Mr. Bard said.
All Lazarus computers do that. Each comes with the MS-DOS version six operating system and a word processing and spreadsheet program called Microsoft Works. Both are gifts from Microsoft Corp.
Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has praised Mr. Bard and his accomplishments.
"He talks to Bill Gates," Microsoft's chief executive officer, Mr. Ecker said. "He gets through to him. Microsoft is a very heavy player with them."
Mr. Ecker put Mr. Bard in touch with Rouse Co. officials, who gave the foundation free space in the company's Columbia Gateway Plaza.
Since a little more than three years ago, the Lazarus Foundation has refurbished hundreds of computers for schools and nonprofit community service organizations and has spawned branches in California, Vermont, Washington and Virginia.
When deciding whether Lazarus can help an organization, Mr. Bard, said, he asks himself, "Would I give money to it?" If the answer is yes, he asks what kind of technology the group wants and what software it needs.
More often than not, he said he finds that the free Microsoft software and the older computers, with little power by today's standards, fill the bill nicely.
"Economically, what we do doesn't make a lot of sense," said Robert E. Gold, an astrophysicist Mr. Bard recruited from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. "But socially, it makes a lot of sense."
Mr. Gold is the one volunteer at the foundation who has expertise in restoring Apple Macintosh computers. His training of students is a model for the master-apprentice relationship between volunteers and students on other types of computers.
"I can take all those skills in electronics and do something useful for the community," Mr. Gold said. "I can pay something back."
William Craig, a mathematics and computer programming teacher at Oakland Mills High School, developed a Lazarus project in which his students rebuilt 32 IBM-compatible computers and gave them to two needy students in each county middle school. The students who worked on the computers then became mentors for the students who received them.
Mr. Craig plans to offer 30 to 50 computers to students at Oakland Mills High School. "We wanted to give to others first," he said.
Each Oakland Mills student receiving a computer will pledge to give 10 hours of service to a charitable, religious or other nonprofit organization.
Lazarus volunteer Dane H. vonBriechenruchardt, a Norwegian pilot and cardiopulmonary physiologist, became a Lazarus volunteer after reading about the foundation a couple of years ago.
Dr. vonBriechenruchardt puts games on laptop computers he and other Lazarus volunteers have refurbished and takes them to pediatric wards in hospitals in Tidewater Virginia.
"I look for games with a lot of noise for that age group. It gives kids who are hospitalized something to do and allows them to bond with computers as they play and learn."
Newcomers can learn about computers and help Lazarus volunteers refurbish them on the first Saturday of every month. The group also meets evenings at the Gateway Plaza shopping center on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. All workshops are held at the foundation headquarters at Gateway Plaza.
Pub Date: 4/19/96