As you read this article, envision yourself without a computer, without an Internet-accessible device, stranded on the dark side of the digital divide. That is the case for millions of people globally, but also a challenge right here in our Capital City. Trenton has been plagued by violence, by educational shortcomings, economic decline, and urban blight that many cities often experience. Trenton has many economically destitute households who exist well below the federal poverty line and who qualify for government assistance. Trenton has some 85,000 residents and there are neighborhoods in the city where as few as “20% of homes have reliable Internet access,” according to Senior Comcast VP Dave Breidinger. In an age of Internet ubiquity, this figure is astonishing and unacceptable. The Internet has indescribable capabilities. It is a sea of limitless knowledge and unfettered opportunity. Its benefits are tangible and its possibilities endless. To remain competitive and prepared, Internet access has to be an undeniable guarantee. In today’s world, everyone should have access to the Internet. The Trenton Digital Initiative (TDI) aims to give hope, one computer at a time.
The TDI concept was first introduced by founder Glenn Paul, (CEO of Textler, a cloud based mobile database consulting firm), in 2010. “I proposed the idea to (the nonprofit) HomeFront and they immediately likened to it,” Glenn mentioned in a recent interview. HomeFront initially warehoused the computers and served as a meeting point for volunteers, he pointed out. HomeFront has since refocused its services but has remained an avid supporter of the project. TDI is now administered by Mercer Street Friends, which services underprivileged populations in the Trenton area. Mercer Street Friends is a multifaceted nonprofit that provides educational services, operates the Mercer County Food Bank, and other essential services, helping families and communities make the journey out of poverty. Since Mercer Street adopted the project, it has become a “groundswell effort,” according to Computer Specialist and primary TDI representative Dave Zboray.
Over time, the TDI mission has remained the same: to refurbish and recondition donated computers for redistribution to economically challenged families in the Trenton area. Oddly, Glenn recalls that “the first contribution (to TDI) came from a friend in Plano, Texas.” From that moment forward, the TDI seed was planted and the project sprouted as other donations filtered in. Soon thereafter, the communications conglomerate Comcast joined the movement. Comcast was already offering the Internet Essentials package, a national program offering affordable broadband to qualifying low-income families with school-age children. Comcast had built a successful model in other U.S. cities and decided to take its approach to Trenton. In addition to providing this affordable Internet access to qualifying families, Comcast has continuously supported the TDI program through computer and equipment donations and vouchers for one year of free Internet service. Comcast remains a major supporter of TDI and its mission to digitalize the city.
The TDI entity has been able to forge sustainable relationships with local colleges, such as Mercer County Community College (MCCC) and Rider University, who have committed to support the initiative long term. Mercer County Community College has donated more than 100 fully functional computers in a symbol of its aspirations for the Capital City. In recent years, MCCC has expanded its Kearney Campus to broaden educational opportunities in Trenton. Widespread support has emerged on the Rider University campus as students have expressed an eagerness to give back to the community. Rider has generously contributed more than 30 desktop computers, 30 Epson SD LCD Projectors, and other accessories to date. “We see this as a great opportunity to serve the citizens of New Jersey’s Capital City,” says David Campbell, a sophomore accounting major and TDI campus liaison at Rider. “The volunteer group from Rider is investing their time because they share a collective passion in furthering a higher standard in the development of Trenton’s next great leaders.” Students have engaged in tech, programmatic, and administrative activities to advance the initiative and expand their own arsenal of skills. Students have offered innovative ideas and solutions, assessed damaged machines, extracted salvageable parts, assisted with inventory and the implementation of a reporting system, established a telephone outreach program, and developed marketing materials to garner more awareness. Support on college campuses, like MCCC and Rider, and student involvement will be vital to the sustainability of the project and the ability to meet long-term goals.
The last step of the project is ensuring Internet connectivity in the household and providing technical support for those who encounter difficulty. In 2014, Mercer Street Friends amassed more than 350 computer donations, developed a visual guidebook, and a tech-support line using the Ubuntu software package to repurpose the donated equipment. Ubuntu Desktop OS is a free, open-source operating system that powers millions of desktop PCs worldwide. The Trenton Digital Initiative is using Ubuntu for its refurbished PCs because of the software’s secure, intuitive, and lightweight nature. The installation process is quick and removes existing data from the donor computer’s hard disk drive. It includes everything you need to get online, search for information, send emails, and so forth. Ubuntu also comes prepackaged with a free Office application, giving users the ability to create and share documents.
TDI has also benefited from individual equipment donations, monetary contributions, and matching grant programs. For example, the Trenton Rotary has played an integral role in acquiring funding for the project’s purchase of parts and repairs. Rotary district 7510 encompasses 40 clubs within five New Jersey counties. Each year a local chapter is encouraged to fill out an application request for grant money awarded by the district for a worthy project. The purpose of the grant is twofold: to help fund a meaningful community project and to engender collaboration among the clubs within the district. This year, the Rotary Club of Trenton applied for and was subsequently awarded a grant that will directly benefit TDI. Funding is a critical component of TDI that will help cover equipment repairs and general overhead. The Trenton Thunder Baseball Club, AA Affiliate of the New York Yankees, recently awarded a $2,500 grant to Mercer Street Friends for TDI activities. Mercer Street Friends, as well as Trenton Rotary, continue to evaluate possible funding opportunities to help subsidize the project as it expands and becomes more educational in nature.
Another example of support for TDI comes from the Tech/Ed Committee, a group of dedicated professionals—in and out of the technology field—working as a volunteer team, organized by the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce to nurture and support the business environment in the mid-Jersey region. In 2014, the Tech/Ed committee rallied around TDI and was able to build significant momentum and garner widespread awareness for the initiative. The Tech/Ed Committee has played an integral role in rejuvenating the project and acquiring large-scale donations.
In additional to requesting donations of computer hard drives, monitors and peripherals, TDI is calling upon volunteers from the community to assist in these collaborative efforts. TDI representatives are seeking volunteers for technical support, delivery services, recordkeeping, and client relations. Other volunteer positions that are available include writing tech support manuals, teaching computer skills, assisting with marketing operations, and general clerical support. A dedicated volunteer base is another essential ingredient for continued success.
It is no secret that Trenton needs a revival. The city has glaring unemployment, educational challenges, and cultural barriers, all of which can be overcome. As Glenn Paul emphasizes, “TDI is one of the initiatives in Trenton that has a real chance to positively impact the city.” In essence, the digital divide is just one of the many afflictions in the city of Trenton. A former city government official once declared that the city could use as many as “17,000 computers” for its residents. Based on a conservative estimate, New Jersey disposes of more than one million computers every year. Many of these computers are discarded into landfills where they will be detrimental to the environment and produce harmful waste. However, many of the computers destined for landfills are often salvageable and can be reconditioned to benefit a family in need. The redistribution of computers into unprivileged communities can certainly have an unprecedented impact. A computer with Internet accessibility can provide knowledge, inspiration, and capability to those who are most devoid of it. It can improve literacy, language skills, allow one to pursue a college degree, write a school report, apply for a job, file tax returns, and stay up to date on national news. Historically, owning a computer was a luxury, now it ought to be considered an unabridged guarantee. TDI aims to give hope for the future, one device and one family at a time.
TDI is officially sponsored by the Rotary Club of Trenton, Mercer Street Friends, the Hamilton Area YMCA, and the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce. Mercer Street Friends, the Hamilton Area YMCA, and the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce serve as official drop-off locations for computer donations. AR&C Self-Storage serves as the official transportation partner of the program. For additional information or to learn more about our services, please visit us at our recently completed website: www.TDI-Trenton.info.
For volunteer inquiries and/or to arrange a private pick-up, please call (609) 278-5520 or email TDI@MercerStreetFriends.org. Monetary donations should be made payable to Mercer Street Friends and mailed to Mercer Street Friends, Attn: TDI, 151 Mercer Street, Trenton, NJ 08611. All donations are tax-deductible, as allowed by law, and graciously appreciated.
Contributors: Jeff Richardson & Dante Mazzocco