Computers are given new life at Empower Up

Non-profit focuses on re-use and recycling

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Jerry Kurtti, of Vancouver, has been a volunteer for Empower Up for the past four months. A few days a week he spends several hours at a time breaking down into parts the hard drives that are donated to the facility, which works to recycle and re-use computers and electronics. Led by Executive Director Oso Martin, Empower Up was founded as a non-profit organization in February 2009.

To make a donation to the non-profit or learn more about Empower Up and the services it offers, visit www.empow, call 735-0888, or e-mail info@empowerup

It’s a place where old computer parts come to die.

At Empower Up in Vancouver, wires, mother boards, hard disks and CPUs are stripped from their plastic containers and, along with items including monitors, and dumped into one of the receptacles that neatly line the wall of the warehouse style building — like coffins that hold the bits and pieces of what once was.

But at the home of this non-profit entity, these previously unwanted parts are not forwarded on to a landfill somewhere. Instead, they are brought back to life through the organization’s re-use and recycling efforts.

Empower Up offers a variety of services and re-furbished products to the community. Among them are free computer education classes, job skills training, access to the Internet, and computers for people and families in need. To support these efforts, donated computers and electronics are re-used and recycled.

“We’re trying to make sure everyone has access to modern society,” said Executive Director Oso Martin. “There’s an entire segment of society that is being left behind. Everything we’re doing is toward that end.”

To make a donation to the non-profit or learn more about Empower Up and the services it offers, visit www.empow, call 735-0888, or e-mail info@empowerup

Those who use the organization’s education services often at first have little experience with computers, software or the Internet.

“There is a huge fear factor that is a barrier,” Martin said. “Once you get them on there though, they are coming right back to get that Facebook account. Their confidence and self-esteem is up. It’s a good feeling to do this kind of work and see the impact you have on folks.”

There is also a thrift store at the 5000 E. Fourth Plain Blvd. location where computers not used in the organization’s other programs are tested and refurbished and offered for sale at reasonable prices.

Empower Up, formerly known as “Computer REuse And Marketing,” or C.R.E.A.M., provides its services in partnership with governments including Clark County and the City of Vancouver, organizations including The Salvation Army, educational entities such as Clark College and businesses like Waste Connections.

One-third of the Empower Up income comes from recovery of materials.

“We try to re-use as much as possible because it’s better for the environment,” said Recycling Manager Jerry Hatch. “We are adding value without adding cost.”

Empower Up became an official 501(c)3 non-profit in February 2009, but the efforts of the organization began many years earlier.

In January 2003, the program established collection sites for e-waste within the county. At times it has been a challenge to get the word out to the community, but results are becoming visible.

“It’s gotten better,” Hatch said of the success of efforts to inform the community about the Empower Up programs. “It’s been a fight for a while to get people to know about it. But we’re getting there.”

Since 2009, Empower Up has received more than 18,000 pieces of donated electronics from more than 3,100 individuals, small businesses and non-profits. Five thousand have been refurbished.

Generally, Hatch said Empower Up can get the best use out of computers that are five years old or newer. However, they will take just about anything. Computers that can’t be re-sold are broken down and used for their parts.

That’s where Jerry Kurtti comes in. He is one of the volunteers who de-constructs computers that are donated to Empower Up. He has been on the job for about the past four months. It is work he enjoys.

“I started volunteering at other places,” said the retiree, “but a lot of them weren’t very organized. But when I come here, I know exactly what I have to do. I tear these babies apart and leave.”

Empower Up has logged more than 9,500 hours of service from 484 interns and volunteers like Kurtti.

“Volunteers are the engine that helps to run the green machine we are here,” Martin said. “We are here to make their volunteer experience fun and enjoyable. Volunteers are doing the work and having fun at the same time.”

Running the day-to-day tasks of the operation are four paid staff members, including Martin, Hatch, Reuse Manager Jennifer Buschman and Volunteer Manager Shelly Caldwell.

When Empower Up first started as a non-profit in 2009, it was under an agreement with Clark County and the City of Vancouver stipulating that within two years those governments would no longer provide funding to the organization and it would have to be stand on its own.

“The idea is that when our funding runs out we will have built up our basic income streams,” Martin said. “I have no reason to believe we will not be sustainable on our own when the time comes.”

Currently underway is a fund-raising campaign, with the goal of bringing in $40,000 by the end of the year.

The effort was given a boost when an anonymous donor contributed $20,000.

Martin said he is hoping others see the potential for what Empower Up can continue to accomplish in the community.

“We are just scratching the surface with our little operation here.”