When Vick Patel arrived on campus as a freshman at Eastern Florida State College, he had a plan for his degree in place. He had always enjoyed playing around with computers when he was younger, dating back to the first Dell desktop he got in 2008.
It wasn’t a powerful machine by today’s standards, but he thought it was cool, and it helped convince him to study computer science. It just made sense.
As he took classes, however, he found himself struggling at times with the coursework. Vick put in extra time studying and seeking help from tutors, but each coding class proved a challenge. He began to question this calling until one of his professors this spring semester introduced him to a policy: If Vick volunteered in the community, he could be eligible to receive extra credit in the course.
That’s when Vick discovered Computers Advancing Education, Inc. (CAEI), a small but growing non-profit based in the same Florida county as his college. The organization receives donations of old, even broken computer systems. Its members repair the computers and give them to people who cannot afford one themselves. That sounded great to Vick, who happened to be enrolled in a computer repair class, as well.
He started showing up to the program’s Tuesday afternoon work sessions, where experienced technician-volunteers restore life to broken hard drives, spoiled memory, and unresponsive screens. Vick found he appreciated the practical restoration that so nearly paralleled his in-class studies, learning from and getting to know his fellow volunteers. At the center of the volunteer operation is Mr. Fremont Bassett ’65 — the organization’s noble leader, who everyone simply calls “Freebie.”
“He’s a saint, he really is,” said Tony Zelisko, an active volunteer with CAEI since the early 2000s. “He recognized long ago that this was a good thing to do, that I can help somebody by putting this computer together. So he did that.”
In the three decades after he graduated from Catholic Memorial, Mr. Bassett never considered becoming an expert in computers. He went to school to become an aircraft mechanic, used those skills for 12 years in the Air Force, and returned to get a bachelor’s degree at the University of Arizona. After a brief time at a Miami airline, he earned a position at Cape Canaveral as a project manager and engineer with the Space Shuttle Program in 1982, less than a year after its first launch.
But then, in the late 1990s, he underwent open heart surgery. The successful operation wouldn’t prevent Mr. Bassett from stepping away from his career, but it did require a good six months at home to rest. For a man who had always kept busy with work, the sudden change in pace was noticeable — to one of his kids, at least.
Mr. Bassett’s eldest son, John, decided his father would benefit from a project to keep him active. He was looking to fix up a machine he had, so John decided he and his father would learn to rebuild the computer together. That’s what they did, right there on Freebie’s kitchen table.
The first one was slow work. John held a job in computer retail, but Freebie had never been a computer geek. He was a builder, a troubleshooter, and a fixer — as it turns out, the perfect combination for the project. With some extra time and persistence, they got it up and running. But this effort went beyond keeping busy. The pair knew of a young man whose father was a contractor in Egypt and couldn’t afford a way to communicate with him. Now they’d found a way, and the Bassetts delivered the restored computer to the boy by Christmas. Today, Freebie says, that boy works in Silicon Valley.
The story might have stopped there. Freebie didn’t let it. The yet-unnamed operation transitioned from his garage to a small space NASA let them use and became “Computers for Education.” As the name indicated from the very beginning, the Bassetts — Freebie’s wife and other son also joined in — weren’t merely interested in fixing up computers as a hobby or additional source of income. It was all about who and how they could help.
“The goal is education,” Mr. Bassett said. “Education is the one thing that makes you marketable, gives you self-esteem, and no one can take it away from you. Absolutely no one.”
The demand for access to computers may not have been as prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s as today, but the machines were already becoming a key tool for students, young and old. While the small group, with a couple other volunteers, gave some of the computers they refurbished to private individuals with a demonstrated need, many more went to schools that struggled to squeeze any new technology into thin budgets.
“I didn’t know much about computers back then … but I’m mechanically inclined, so I [thought I] probably can do that,” Mr. Zelisko said. “I think it’s great. I’ve always thought if you’re inclined to become college-bound or have a great education, this is a good start.”
By 2005, more than a dozen volunteers regularly worked for Computers Advancing Education — the new name solidified when Mr. Bassett filed for the organization to become a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit. They had already connected with the Brevard County School System, which includes Cape Canaveral and had been an early and consistent beneficiary of the computers. In return, and to help the organization grow, Brevard gave a couple rooms for CAEI to use for work and storage — another growing need for the group, which no longer received just private, donated equipment.
Several organizations had begun to support the effort. They receive their primary operating revenue from United Way, Rockwell Green Community, and the Titusville Pilots Association. CAEI has also touted partnerships with companies like AAR Airlift Group, Lockheed Martin, Artemis, and Ensco. Earlier this year, Bassett says a local employment group named CareerSource Brevard donated 97 systems, and The Boeing Company donated about 200 systems, while more still have given financial grants.
All this adds up to a lot of systems. In March, Mr. Bassett estimated they had a backlog of about 3,000 systems in their facility — a number that pales in comparison to the staggering 8,700 systems and 30,000 peripheral hardware pieces he says they’ve given away since they started the initiative. And all of it for free.
The time and talent to put life back into old computers comes from the organization’s volunteer base, which Mr. Bassett has gradually shored up over the years to a team of about 40 regulars today — many of which happen to be quite good at what they do.
“If we were a business out in the real world, where we were charging for things, we’d be a multi-million dollar business with the background and technology we have,” he says.
Of course, these computer systems — which may include consoles, monitors, and other accessories, like a keyboard and mouse — come in varying degrees of quality. Some are still relatively functional and need just a simple tune-up and hard drive wipe before they can be sent back out the door. Others take more intensive time and care and may require parts from other systems to get them to work. The ones in the worst shape are broken down for those parts, and a group of six volunteers will recycle what they can.
Besides the recycling team, Mr. Bassett also has a team of network and software engineers, along with a committee that weighs each applicant who asks for a computer. They aspire to connect as many people as possible with a computer, but with such high demand, CAEI has created a set of qualifications that aims to prioritize students and schools – usually in nearby Florida where shipping is cheapest, but as far as Washington State if they feel the situation merits it.
“All the folks who come to see us are disadvantaged in one way or another,” said Mr. Dan Bulkowski, another CAEI volunteer who started last year. “The computer opens a wide world of information out there, and a lot of the schools now require one to do some of the lessons.”
Mr. Bulkowski, a longtime computer repairer who recently retired, is on tap to lead the other arm of CAEI’s operations: computer classes. The organization has offered three different programs. The first is basic computing, an introductory course that teaches students the essentials of how to operate the machine and get online. Then, there’s an intermediary repair class, where computer owners learn how to diagnose and resolve issues themselves rather than having to pay for expensive repairs. Finally, the “Make It, Take It” class teaches users to fully assemble a system. Once it’s up and running, it’s theirs to bring home.
“You really learn how to feel, touch, and smell computers and what to do,” Mr. Bassett says. “Some people can’t learn from the books [alone].” This isn’t the traditional classroom education in which many programmers or technicians learn to handle computers, but they provide valuable hands-on experience, of which even volunteers like Vick have reaped the benefits. Joining CAEI’s team helped him decide to change his major to computer management specialization. He plans to enter the Air Force when he graduates, but he’ll still have the tangible skills of computer repair with him.
Mr. Bassett believes working hard, and even struggling in the process to learn such skills, is invaluable. He distinctly remembers one defining message from his favorite faculty at CM: it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to go back and try again if you don’t get it the first time, or the second, or the fifth. They never forced him into anything, but more “cajoled” their students into giving their all.
“They all instilled in you, you’ve got to try your best,” Mr. Bassett says. “You can’t just walk through life and say it’s going to happen. You’ve got to work at it.”
Mr. Bassett has taken on every role he can to help expand CAEI’s reach as far as he can. He’s not just the president and founder of CAEI, but also the receptionist — the organization’s primary phone number connects to his personal cell, which will ring anytime from 6:30 in the morning to 11 at night. He also plays the invaluable role of fundraiser and hopes to open the facility more than the current practice of once a week and serve more clients.
And, of course, he’s got his own machines to work on. In mid-March, it was an HP 2000 with an I3 processor — a “nice machine” that he reloaded with a new hard drive and Windows 10.
After that? Who knows what might come his way next. Whatever it is, he’ll make sure it goes to someone who needs it.To help Freebie and his team at Computers Advancing Education, Inc., visit their website computersadvancingeducation.org to donate computers and/or funds.