When Casey Sorensen was 9, his mother, a secretary at the local high school, saved her pennies for a full year to get the family a computer and “DOS for Dummies” handbook. Her son recalls being “instantly hooked.” He decided he would pursue a degree — and a career — in technology. He’s done that in a big, and unexpected, way. Sorensen is CEO of the St. Paul-based nonprofit PCs for People, which is celebrating 20 years of getting refurbished computers and low-cost internet into homes across the United States. Recently honored with the Charles Benton Digital Champion Award, which recognizes national leadership in advancing digital equity, Sorensen talks about expansion, what he still worries about and how he unplugs.
Q: Congrats on 20 years. What makes you most proud?
A: From our humble beginnings in Minnesota, we are now a national program. We have distributed over 80,000 computers, which means that more than 265,000 people have access to a computer in their home. We have retail locations here and in Colorado and Ohio, where lines form before we open, and we have distributed computers to people in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Every day of the week, it looks like Christmas in our warehouse as we fill a UPS truck with computers heading across the U.S.
Q: What’s on the horizon?
A: We are expanding our Minnesota headquarters to a new 31,000-square-foot facility and talking with prospective funders on both coasts. With coastal operations, we would have a more robust national network for corporate IT recycling; we already have diverted 76,500 computers from landfills. In addition, we could provide broader accessibility. It’s an exciting time to be involved in digital inclusion.
Q: Has the term “digital inclusion” replaced “digital divide?”
A: I would say it is the evolution or modernization of the term digital divide that has occurred over the last 20 years. When “digital divide” was coined, computers and the internet were tools for productivity and information. While that is still true, someone who lacks digital skills, a computer and internet connection today can no longer fully participate in our society, democracy and the economy.
Q: Who is your average recipient?
A: A family of three, living on $14,000 per year. Even in 2018, 60% of our recipients say they have never owned a computer. A staggering 58% report they are unemployed. That is a powerful statistic that shows the importance of a home computer and internet connection, and how we have transformed into a digital society.
Q: Make the connection between getting a computer and getting a new lease on life.
A: According to the Department of Labor, more than 75% of jobs will require digital skills by next year. This is not just sitting at a computer in an office. Many jobs that were previously manual now require using high tech tools to increase efficiency, accuracy and productivity. Someone without basic technical skills will automatically be less qualified for 75% of jobs. Libraries do a great job of providing the first point of access to technology, but having a home computer allows someone to build digital skills, search for a job and do homework on their own schedule.
Q: Your computers also are a lifeline for people facing housing insecurity and homelessness.
A: Some individuals are facing homelessness. Having digital access is a vital part of developing job readiness skills to get and maintain a job. They are appreciative of the mobility of their laptops and internet access. While in transition, they can easily bring their technology with them and stay connected.
Q: Summer presents unique challenges. Tell us about that.
A: Teachers more and more are suggesting curriculum for the summer months to keep students from the “summer slide.” Lots of these are online resources. Not having a home computer can result in some students starting the school year already behind their peers. Some schools are catching on and are allowing students to bring their school Chromebooks home for the summer. However, this requires internet connection.
Q: What do recipients tell you?
A: We have a collection of pictures that say “thank you” from children of parents who receive computers, letters of gratitude, and reminders on our social media platforms that we have changed the trajectory of their life by simply giving them a PCs for People computer.
Q: If we want to donate a computer, are there restrictions?
A: Computers are not like a fine wine; they don’t age well. As they sit in a storage closet, the useful life for another person is shrinking. Drop off computers at any of our locations. For businesses, we offer free pickup. Both individual and business computers will have data sanitized and be professionally refurbished or responsibly recycled.
Q: How do you unplug?
A: My wife, May, and I have a 3-year-old daughter, 6-month-old son and 14- and 20-year old stepsons, so home life is full and rewarding. I like to take them to the Boundary Waters Canoe and Wilderness Area and Quetico Provincial Park. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the only time I really step away from computers and the internet, when there is no power or signal.
To learn more or to donate, go to pcsforpeople.org