Second chances

Jim Cald­well dis­as­sembles com­puters and re­as­sembles their parts in­to work­ing ma­chines. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

— At In­de­pend­ence In­dus­tries, people who are visu­ally im­paired re­build com­puters from re­cycled parts, and put them up for sale.


Jim Cald­well can see how valu­able In­de­pend­ence In­dus­tries is to people in the North­east and the en­tire Phil­adelphia re­gion, even though his eyes can barely make the dis­tinc­tion between dark and light.

In­de­pend­ence is the loc­al sub­si­di­ary of Lan­caster-based Susque­hanna As­so­ci­ation for the Blind and Vis­ion Im­paired, a non-profit or­gan­iz­a­tion that provides re­hab­il­it­a­tion, early child­hood edu­ca­tion, em­ploy­ment train­ing and oth­er ser­vices to the blind and vis­ion-im­paired.

In­de­pend­ence op­er­ates a series of vo­ca­tion­al pro­grams from a Drum­mond Road ware­house near North­east Phil­adelphia Air­port. Per­haps none of its activ­it­ies are more pub­licly vis­ible than its e-Cycle pro­gram, which rounds up truck­loads of dis­carded com­puter equip­ment for re­cyc­ling or re­fur­bish­ment and re­sale on the second-hand mar­ket.

In­de­pend­ence sells the ma­chines on site and also con­ducts sev­er­al col­lec­tion events and sales each year out­side the fact­ory.

“I think we did over four-hun­dred-thou­sand pounds (of com­puters) that were kept out of land­fills last year,” said Steve Le­bano, the plant man­ager for In­de­pend­ence In­dus­tries.

Des­pite his sight chal­lenges, Cald­well works hands-on in the com­puter de­part­ment. He dis­as­sembles in­com­ing com­puters and helps re­as­semble the best parts in­to new work­ing ma­chines. He’s been in the job for three years and been with In­de­pend­ence for five years.

“I’m go­ing to keep com­ing up here un­til this place doesn’t ex­ist any­more or I don’t,” said the 56-year-old Wyn­cote res­id­ent, who com­mutes on his own each day by bus.

“Since the 1970s, I’ve worked in elec­tron­ics. I have a ham ra­dio li­cense and worked in ra­dio for fif­teen years. So it’s nice I have a chance to work on elec­tron­ics,” Cald­well said.

About 35 people work at In­de­pend­ence. Of those, about 30 are vis­ion im­paired.

The e-Cycle pro­gram em­ploys a hand­ful, while an­oth­er de­part­ment man­u­fac­tures de­sign­er ceram­ic tile for Inglen­ook of Lan­caster.

Else­where in the build­ing, some work­ers make file folders and re­port cov­ers, while oth­ers per­form con­tract man­age­ment ser­vices for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Those folks are sup­posed to check that fed­er­al vendors ful­fill the re­quire­ments of their con­tracts.

“This (site) is more ser­vice-ori­ented. It’s us giv­ing people who are vis­ion im­paired an op­por­tun­ity for mean­ing­ful em­ploy­ment,” said Megan So­filka, vice pres­id­ent and chief de­vel­op­ment of­ficer for Susque­hanna. “(But) it’s not like a sheltered work­shop.”

Em­ploy­ees make bet­ter than min­im­um wage and are eli­gible for health be­ne­fits and va­ca­tion time. Pro­ceeds gen­er­ated from busi­ness activ­it­ies here sup­port Susque­hanna’s re­hab­il­it­at­ive and edu­ca­tion­al func­tions.

So do sales at the “re­tail” com­puter store. The store really is a corner of the ware­house fea­tur­ing enough shelves to stock sev­er­al dozen work­ing sys­tems at any giv­en time.

The pri­cing scheme is pretty simple. Cus­tom­ers can buy a desktop unit with Win­dows XP op­er­at­ing sys­tem, key­board, mouse and cables for $125. Win­dows 7 sys­tems sell for $150 each.

“It doesn’t mat­ter what (com­pon­ents) are in it,” Le­bano said.

Mon­it­ors are sep­ar­ate. Flat screens go for $35 for a 17-inch mod­el or $45 for a 19-inch.

“So you can have a nice set-up for two-hun­dred dol­lars,” Le­bano said dur­ing a re­cent tour of the shop. “I sold about a thou­sand dol­lars worth yes­ter­day.”

Some less­er-priced com­pon­ents, like speak­ers and surge pro­tect­ors, are avail­able in a $5 bin at the shop and in the shop’s eBay store.

The shelves are stocked on a rolling basis, so there is no ded­ic­ated ship­ment day. Com­puters are guar­an­teed for a week. If one breaks down be­fore then — and there’s no evid­ence of ab­use — In­de­pend­ence will try to fix it or provide a re­place­ment ma­chine. Cald­well and his col­leagues put only sound com­puters up for sale.

“I’ve had mine for three years,” So­filka said.

“They are the cream of what we get,” Le­bano said. “They’re all Pen­ti­um 4 pro­cessors, dual-core and quad-core.”

Hard-drive se­cur­ity is of primary con­cern to Noah Reed, one of the PC tech­ni­cians. Whatever enters the build­ing doesn’t leave the build­ing. Drives are wiped clean and re­format­ted or des­troyed, de­pend­ing on their re­usab­il­ity. A 40-giga­byte drive is the smal­lest that Reed will re­pur­pose.

“Noth­ing comes out of here the way it came in,” he said.

The trashy com­puters ac­count for about 95 per­cent of dona­tions and end up in the re­cyc­ling bins. In large volume, they can be quite prof­it­able.

Some older mi­cro­chips have gold in them and can be scrapped for $80 per pound. Oth­er cir­cuit boards sell for less. Alu­min­um or cop­per heat sinks are also con­sidered prime scrap metals.

Even the met­al boxes or shells that en­close the com­puter can be resold for pen­nies per pound.

Every day, trucks de­liv­er new sup­plies to the shop. Busi­nesses donate about 90 per­cent of the old com­puters. A couple times a year, In­de­pend­ence holds col­lec­tion events in area shop­ping cen­ters as a pro­mo­tion­al tool and con­veni­ence to home com­puter users. It also has a pair of tent sale pro­mo­tions each year — one in the spring, an­oth­er in the fall — along with a hol­i­day sea­son sale each year. ••

For in­form­a­tion about donat­ing an un­wanted com­puter or pur­chas­ing a re­fur­bished one, call In­de­pend­ence In­dus­tries at 215-205-4116.

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