A Walk on the Tech Side

A Walk on the Tech Side

As a probation officer, Tony Jordan intimately understood the struggles of troubled youth and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system meant to rehabilitate them. So in 2004 with the help of his wife, DaVena, he launched All Walks of Life Inc. (AWOL; www.awolinc.org), a Savannah, Georgia-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit to create intensive after-school and summer programs serving kids who are at risk of or have tangled with the law.
AWOL’s theater, music production, and information technology programs help build the self-esteem of 150 participants. “Often, if you can take the kids out of their current environment–single or no parent homes–and put them in a healthy fun environment where it’s OK to be a kid, they can open themselves up to change and become new people,” Jordan explains.

At the outset, participants sign personalized “man-up plans,” which define the steps required to reach their academic and behavioral goals. And within Goon Squad, AWOL’s computer recycling program, they learn to strip down old computers to their component parts, record their specs, wipe their hard drives, reassemble them, and install new operating systems. Along the way, they build confidence, job skills, and relationships that they can leverage into careers. “Gone are the days where we cou ld teach kids to ride a forklift,” DaVena says.  “We need to see if these kids can write the [software] programs to tell the forklift how to move the boxes.”

Moreover, the participants grow personally by donating the refurbished machines to local needy families and understanding the role they play in keeping hazardous electronic waste out of landfills. Last Christmas, AWOL participants donated 25 computers and this year they intend to refurbish and give away 1,000. The recipients receive computer training, free Internet access, and tech support.

Recently, the City of Savannah, Georgia, in partnership with the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, awarded the computer-recycling program an $80,000 Georgia Technology Authority grant to provide low-income residents with refurbished computers so that they can tap into the wireless Internet infrastructure the city is building. AWOL uses the funds to buy temperature-controlled storage space, power supply testers, and other materials.

Most of AWOL’s $200,000 annual budget is covered through city contracts, state and federal grants, and private donations. Participants (except for those referred by the Department of Juvenile Justice) also pay between $5 and $40 a month. A third of AWOL participants arrive through the juvenile justice system and 90% of those get off probation without new referrals to court, resulting in $500,000 in funding over the years. Additionally, after the program, the vast majority of AWOL’s more than 350 graduates have gone on to college, technical school, the military, or joined the workforce.

“For them to work on the computers and realize it’s for a greater cause, that in itself is powerful,” Jordan says. “They’re furthering the lifespan of computers and making a difference in someone else’s life.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.