‘Getting up to your elbows in computer guts’

Company donates 7,400 computers to students since father, son started non-profit organization 8 years ago

Marlena Chertock

APRIL 6, 2011

Ned and Mark fixed computers in their basement when they first started. They fixed 30 computers over the course of Ned's 7th grade year. Photo submitted.

Elon junior Ned Dibner remembers when his father, Mark, first brought home the basic circuitry of a computer for them to rebuild.

“We’re getting a computer and it’s going to be yours,” Mark said to Ned. “But you’re going to pay for half of it and we have to put it together.”

The Dibners didn’t know anything about computers before they tried to put one together, Mark said. Mark has a Ph.D in biology, not computer science.

They picked up worksheets and searched online tutorials.

“We bought a really crappy $5 handout on how to fix a computer and built it from scratch,” Ned said.

When they finished working on the computer, Ned turned to his dad and said many of his peers in school didn’t have computers. Ned had noticed that students in his classroom at his school were being penalized for not typing up their papers. He told his dad this was unfair.

“When a 13-year-old says something like that you really listen, and I did,” Mark said.

In June 2003, the father and son started up a non-profit organization in Durham to refurbish computers and donate them to students. Since then, they have donated 7,400 computers.

Mark had experience with entrepreneurship because he taught a course at Duke University. He instilled a sense of business in Ned, Ned said.

The Dibners named their business Kramden, which spells Ned and Mark backwards.

Starting up a nonprofit organization

People move onto faster, better computers and leave the others sitting around, Mark said.

“I had no trouble finding computers for us to work on,” he said. “There are a lot of computers lying around that people aren’t using. They sit in closets, basements, garages and storage rooms of businesses.”

At first, the computers were fixed up in the Dibners’ basement.

“At that point it wasn’t necessarily a company,” Ned said. “It wasn’t necessarily like Robin Hood either. It was more of an idea that we thought of that nobody else had had.”

Mark and Ned both expressed gratitude for their wife and mother in allowing the computers to be fixed and kept in their house.

The basement was so full of monitors, keyboards, power cords and other computer parts that Mark said he didn’t want volunteers to come into the basement to work.

There would be about 60 computers in the house at one time, Ned said.

Kramden moved to a bigger location  in Durham with the help of several start-up grants. One was for $60,000 from Lenovo, the company that bought IBM’s laptop division.

The first recipients of refurbished computers were students in Ned’s class at Brogden Middle School.

All of the students on the A and B honor roll received computers. After that, the father-son business grew.

Kramden asks teachers in the Durham community to nominate students in need of a computer at home.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

There are a few qualifications for students to receive a computer. Students must be hardworking so the computer can be a positive reinforcement to work already being done, according to Ned.

“I was impressed with Kramden’s mission, grassroots, scaling and growing efforts across a community,” said

Carrie Clark, director of operations at Kramden.

Clark has worked with Kramden since 2008, and has been involved in managing nonprofits for 10 years.

Geek as an endearing term

Kramden refers to its volunteers as “geeks.” This is an endearing term, according to the Dibners. Volunteers sometimes even receive T-shirts with the word “geek” on it.

The work days where volunteers fix computers for several hours are called Geek-a-Thons. Volunteers clean out the computers and add memory and programs students will need, such as Microsoft Word, antivirus and antispyware software.

Kramden has an agreement with Microsoft to allow the company to install Microsoft programs onto computers.

The geeks need to perform a government-level wipe of the hard drives for legal reasons, Ned said.

“After that, the computers are completely blank, all identical, not in looks but what’s in it,” he said.

Currently 4,000 volunteers have worked at Kramden, according to Ned.

It costs about $65 to refurbish a computer, he said.

During the Geek-a-Thons, 140 volunteers work in four-hour shifts. Music and entertainment is provided. About 200 to 300 donated computers are turned into 180 to 250 refurbished computers.

Some of the donated computers won’t be able to be refurbished for various reasons, from not being able to be fixed, broken parts or driver errors. But parts from these computers can be used for others.

“It’s getting up to your elbows in computer guts,” Mark said.

The Dibners and geeks have found interesting items left behind in donated computers.

Kramden was started by father and son, Mark and Ned. Volunteers are essential to fixing hundreds of computers during Geek-a-Thons, Mark said. Photo submitted.

“There have been weird CDs, how to become a psychic, how to pick locks,” Ned said. “We found quite a few above and below CD drives, where CDs don’t belong. People jam them in there.”

Kramden gives away computers to nominated students through the Monthly Kramden Computer Award Day.

Kramden is trying to update the computers it donates, according to Ned. Older, large computer monitors are being replaced by LCD monitors.

If a donated computer breaks, Kramden will fix it until the student graduates high school.

Helping students without computers

A student interning at Kramden a few years ago came across her sister’s name in a data list, and realized her sister received a computer from Kramden.

The intern now attends Camden University, said Carrie Clark, director of operations at Kramden.

Having a computer at home greatly impacts a student’s life, Clark said. It changes how they approach their education and the structure of a student’s day, she said.

“It’s great to hear students say, ‘This computer is going to allow me to focus on my homework. I don’t have to go to the library and sign up and wait for my 45-minute time slot,'” Clark said.

Students are working hard even if they don’t have computers.

“They’re doing everything they can with what’s available to them,” Clark said. “To hand them a computer might help them perform better academically, might put them on the field. It’s not a level playing field. They’re not even on the field without computers.”

The computer provides a resource for the entire family, according to Clark.

“Think of a child with and without Google,” Ned said. “A child who doesn’t have a computer in the home hears about something and wants to know the answer. If he has to go to the library, will he actually go and find it versus a student who has Google?”

The student with a computer at home and Google has access to anything he ever wanted in under a second, Ned said.

“Think about the last time you couldn’t get onto the Internet for 20 minutes,” Mark said. “We feel cut off from the world. Imagine if you didn’t know that difference, didn’t have a  computer. It’s a huge thing.”

Technology and education

Computers are a main component of education, according to Candace Hosey,  technology director of Alamance-Burlington Board of Education.

“Computers have revolutionized society as well as education,” she said. “Technology has allowed us a bird’s eye view of the world around us. This opportunity was not available in the traditional classroom ten years ago.”

Applications on a computer can be used in every course and class, according to ABSS Board Chair Jackie Cole. Computers can be used to create projects and study, help parents understand what students are doing and post grades online for students, she said.

Students can gain unique perspectives on issues when they are exposed to different ways of understanding the material, Hosey said. The use of computers in the classroom or at home offers this to students, she said.

Access to technology and the Internet is very important, Cole said.

Today’s children are digitally aware, according to Hosey. Digital communication is entwined in their daily lives.

But learning these digital programs and tools most often takes place outside of the classroom, she said.

One of ABSS’ goals is to create engaged learning environments. Administrators are working on bridging the gap between the way students learn and the way teachers instruct, Hosey said.

Teachers must update the way they teach, their lesson delivery and work to implement technology in instruction, she said.

“So much of our school system today revolves around technology,” she said. “It’s the way it’s run. I’d be frustrating for a child not to have access to it after school hours because of work they have to do.”

Any school system would like to see every child have a laptop, Cole said. But it requires a lot of money.

“There is inequity between schools,” Cole said.

Measuring impact

Kramden is always looking for interns, according to Mark. This summer, he wants to have interns conduct a telephone- or email-based survey to measure how the company is impacting students’ lives.

“We get a lot of anecdotes, letters, we have a bulletin board of thank you notes,” he said. “It’d be nicer to do it in a little more scientific way.”

The company keeps a record of who received a computer. Mark hopes to have a data set that shows evidence of the impact Kramden makes by the fall, he said.

In the future, Mark wants to see the company or the model spread nationally, he said. Kramden has a slogan of “of the community, for the community.”

There are kids in communities throughout America who are at a digital disadvantage, Mark said.

“We’ve been working for seven years now to write our protocol so anyone could take over and do what we do, just like Habitat for Humanity,” he said.

Find out more about the nonprofit organization at kramden.org.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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