Kemish Rosales spent the summer of 2012, the one between his junior and senior year of high school, learning how to remove hard drives and disk drives safely, rebooting computers, installing software, cleaning mice and speakers, and attending a computer lab every Thursday. Angel Yañez also spent that summer fixing and refurbishing computers, setting them up in labs at schools and non-profit organizations.
Both of them were 16 years old, and students at the Media Academy at Fremont High School. Both of them were part of the Linked Learning summer internship program. Both of them got their first personal computers as a reward for their work at the Oakland Technology Exchange West (OTXW), a nonprofit organization that provides refurbished computers and technical training to Oakland children from low-income households. And now, three years later, both of them are college students who landed their first real jobs as computer technician assistants thanks to that experience.
“Working at OTXW, it’s been a great experience because all the coworkers are really friendly and they are providing us with knowledge we weren’t aware of before,” said Yañez.
On a sunny Tuesday morning, Rosales and Yañez have just gotten back from setting up a computer lab at a middle school in Oakland. They arrive at OTXW and walk past hundreds of monitors and a stack of printers to greet their boss, Bruce Buckelew. Their workday is over, but they still have smiles on their faces and a fresh and friendly attitude. Rosales is wearing sneakers, shorts and a hoodie, and Yañez is wearing sneakers, jeans and a black t-shirt. A uniform isn’t required to work at OTXW—in the past, the two of them spent most of their time in the 16,000-square foot warehouse, filled with computer guts, repairing and cleaning CPU parts. Nowadays, they only spend a few hours at headquarters rebooting and installing software. Then they hop in a colleague’s car and install those refurbished computers in school labs.
“They are the industrious example of what a young person can do to take advantage of what we have to offer,” said Buckelew, the group’s founder.
Rosales and Yañez started working for Buckelew when they were part of the Linked Learning ECCO (Exploring College and Career Options) program, an internship that helps high school students get real-world working experience and skills, completing 150 hours of training. They loved the organization, their colleagues, learning computer skills and serving their community. The following year, they went back to volunteer at OTXW again to refurbish computers and set up computer labs at low-income schools in Oakland. “I personally feel accomplished that we did something good for the schools, and if any problem comes up we always go back and fix it,” said Yañez, now 19. “It just makes me happy to see that the students have something they could rely on.”
Rosales, also now 19, said he enjoys the experience of setting up computers at schools. “I feel great. I feel accomplished,” said Rosales.
OTXW has been working for almost 20 years to provide computers to middle and high school students. The group also provides computers for low-income families, schools and non-profit organizations. They receive donated computers, which they refurbish and give for free or sell for a small amount of money. “I realized that companies, government agencies replace their computers every three to five years. The ones that are coming out are still good, they just need to be refurbished,” said Buckelew. Since 1995, OTXW has given out more than 36,000 computers and diverted over 700 tons of electronic waste from landfills.
After working 25 years as an engineer at IBM, Buckelew began volunteering at Oakland Technical High School, where he started fixing computers in the basement and set up a computer lab. As the program grew, he started providing computers to other schools and kids. The exchange was officially founded in 1995. “I just got hooked, with the absence of technology in the schools and the need for technology,” said Buckelew. He has a well-modulated, quiet voice and he explains each and every aspect of OTXW patiently, in a very teacherly manner.
Nowadays, the schools within the Oakland Unified School District that are interested in having computers for labs or classrooms can contact OTXW and create a customized plan. All the computers the organization offers meet the school district’s specifications and have legally-installed software appropriate for school use. For example, schools can get a HP dual core tower running Windows 7 for $225 per computer, or a Dell 620 for $200 per computer. This includes the installation, keyboards, mice and a one-year warranty for on-site support at no additional charge. Schools can also buy LCD monitors and laser printers from OTXW.
Buckelew, 71, walks slowly around OTXW warehouse in a relaxed and comfortable manner, as if he were at his own house. He proudly shows different computers and equipment the organization has ready to donate or sell, and touches some of them as he walks past. He speaks with great respect about the employers, volunteers and interns that work at the organization.
Last summer, Yañez and Rosales tried to look for other jobs, but couldn’t find any, so they asked Buckelew if they could volunteer a third time. They planned to walk from Fruitvale to West Oakland in order to get to work, and to work around their study schedules at Merritt College.
At first, Buckelew helped them by giving them a stipend for transportation and food, but then he recognized they could be valuable assets to the organization. “I realized they were as good technicians as anybody, so I hired them,” said Buckelew. The two started working as computer technician assistants, setting up school labs with Oscar Rosales, an OTXW veteran technician. “They are good guys. I like to work with them,” said Oscar Rosales. “That’s why if there is a computer lab that we need to set up at some school, I always take them because they really help me.”
The two also work to refurbish computers for OTXW. But what does exactly “refurbishing a computer” mean? It means adding memory, making sure it has a working hard drive and that all the components work, and adding new ones if they don’t. “A refurbished computer—it’s completely different than a used computer. If you buy a new computer, you are buying somebody else’s problem. It’s got viruses on it, it’s got junk in it,” said Buckelew. “If you get one of ours you get a class, you get a manual and you get free tech support. It’s great for a new user.”
Historically, OTXW offered a free home computer to middle and high school students who attended a three-hour class with a parent. This year they changed their strategy. They are now offering a free home computer to any family that is a new broadband subscriber. But low-income people still have other ways to get computers: They can buy one starting at $100 or they can volunteer 20 hours at OTXW to earn one.
Rosales and Yañez understand what it means to work hard to get something. Rosales is in his second year of studying computer science and Yañez is in his second year of studying business. They convinced Bruce that they needed to work 16 hours per week instead of eight, and they are both about to be assigned to schools where they will provide technical support. “Angel just told me yesterday since he is making money, he wants to buy a car and get his driver’s license, because then he could get to more schools and be a more valuable employee,” said Buckelew.
Yañez and Rosales’ families have also been supportive of their process. “My family is really proud of me,” said Yañez. “A year ago, working here throughout the summer, I managed to get a laptop and I gave that to my mom for her birthday, so she was really happy about that.”
“My sister has been asking me for one,” ever since he brought his own home, said Rosales. Did he get her one? “I gave her mine,” said Rosales.
They both said that working at OTXW changed their lives. “It gave us opportunities I didn’t think we would have,” said Rosales.
“The world nowadays runs on technology and the Internet, so by providing computers to every single school, making sure they are working properly, that is just expanding their education,” said Yañez. “I feel like that is giving the Oakland community an advantage.”
Buckelew said that taking students like Rosales and Yañez under his wing is what he wanted to do when he started OTXW. He wanted to find kids that could take advantage of the opportunities he was offering and give them the same breaks his own kids had. “I would take these kids over suburban kids any day,” he said, his eyes growing teary. “They are a lot tougher, I’ll tell you.”
“The reason I hired them, it’s they were so damn persistent,” said Buckelew, as the tears began to stream down his face. “They were persistent.”
The original was published in Oakland North: https://oaklandnorth.net/2014/10/28/teens-turn-tech-skills-learned-from-nonprofit-into-a-first-job/