Minn. philanthropist started with modest dreamsPublished 9:22am Thursday, July 5, 2012
By Brian Ojanpa, Mankato Free Press
MANKATO — It might not be much of a stretch to say that Andy Elofson has been a social worker of Santa-like proportions.
The nonprofit computer distribution organization he founded 14 years ago is flush with success.
But even though PCs for People just passed the 15,000 mark in computers given away free or nearly so, Elofson, a Blue Earth County employee, said he had no grand scheme early on.
“I wish I could say I had a vision, but it wasn’t. I just gave a computer to that kid.”
“That kid” was a youth back in 1998 who had been booted from school for hacking into a computer.
Elofson took note of the teen’s computing skills and one day gave him a used computer he found under a stairwell in the county government center.
A few months later the teen was designing Web pages for churches and eagerly applying his talents in positive ways.
PCs for People donated 30 computers that first year and had ramped up to 5,000 a decade later for a demographic that includes those on fixed incomes, people on disability insurance and divorced mothers going back to school.
Elofson said they’re typically united by a common thread, which may come as a surprise to the majority of the population that takes computer ownership for granted.
As of data compiled six months ago, Elofson said 80 percent of those served by PCs for People have never had a home computer.
And in 2012 to be without a computer or have easy access to one becomes problematic on several fronts. Endeavors now commonly done online include filling out job applications, doing schoolwork, connecting with family and friends through social media and as a conduit for vital patient-health care information.
“These discarded computers become somebody’s lifeline to the world,” said Elofson, who describes his efforts as “social work with a techie twist.”
The PCs for People main office and warehouse in St. Paul is headed by Executive Director Casey Sorenson, a Minnesota State University computer information systems graduate.
Sorenson’s most illustrative tale about the program’s worth involves a jobless man who went to a public library every day to wait in line to job hunt on a computer.
With the library’s hour limit on computer use, the man said it took him three days to apply for a single job. When he acquired his own home computer, he could apply for up to a dozen jobs each day and soon was hired as an adjunct professor.
PCs for People gets most of its donated computers from businesses and organizations that are upgrading their systems. Elofson said 50 computers were recently donated by Gustavus Adolphus College.
Refurbishing is done by volunteers who install Windows XP and Windows 7 operating systems.
Elofson said machines that are distributed for free are functional units, while recipients who make $45 donations receive the more upgraded computers.