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For more than 20 years, the National Cristina Foundation has been diverting older or out-of-use IT equipment away from our landfills and giving them new life in the hands of the people and organizations that need them most. The organization pioneered the practice of IT reuse, and helped pave the way for a broader movement around reuse and green IT. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Yvette Marrin, President and Co-founder of the National Cristina Foundation and ask her a few questions about the organization, its history and its future.
What is the National Cristina Foundation?
The National Cristina Foundation, a not for profit corporation, was founded in 1984 because we believe that older or out-of-use computer equipment should not be wasted but reused to make a difference in support of people in need.
Since our founding, we have encouraged companies and individuals to donate their functional used computer technology to give people with disabilities, students at risk and economically disadvantaged persons the opportunity, through training, to lead more independent and productive lives. We match this technology to the verified needs of nonprofits, schools and public agencies in all 50 states, Canada, and internationally.
It is the Foundation’s strong belief that developing appropriate reuse solutions for technology serves two important goals: First, it extends the working life of functional computer technology by keeping such equipment out of landfills, and second, it changes the lives of tens of thousands of people every day by giving them access to critical training, educational and communication opportunities.
How did you become involved with the National Cristina Foundation?
At the time that I was completing my Ph.D. studies in organizational and administrative studies at New York University, I worked for the Yonkers Public Schools just north of New York City. I had been assigned to work at the Yonkers Board of Education offices with the director of special education. One day he came to me and asked if I would help him out with a special challenge he was facing – finding a teacher for a class of young people with disabilities that presented some special issues. The students came from several different school districts because of the nature of their disabilities and the special services they required. It was a difficult and challenging assignment for the person who would take over as instructor.
Meeting this group of youngsters who ranged in ages from 8-12 and addressing the challenges of helping them get as much out of their education that was possible, I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea that computers could make a significant difference in their lives, especially when one very thoughtful child asked, ”What is to become of me that I am handicapped?” She was expressing what classmates had been very worried about, and she verbalized it for them. Many could not write independently. They needed to learn in a variety of ways- not necessarily traditional ones. I was looking for a tool that could support the educational goals we had defined for them. As I said to them, “there is a lot more you can do independently and I think I have found a tool that could be real helpful to you in the way you can learn.”
But how to get that computer I had my heart set on was the challenge. I only had worked on a mainframe at NYU and there was a lot about personal computers to think about in 1982. The educational tool in use at the time in a very beginning way was the Apple11+ and the 2e. The computer I wanted cost $2500 and had no hard drive and 64k RAM. (That was my option at the time). Among the students in the class was Cristina McMahan, and when I posed the challenge I was having to the children about where to get the funding for a computer and what I had tried, she suggested that I call her dad, Bruce McMahan.
Bruce responded by providing the necessary funding and the work on using the computer productively began in earnest upon its arrival to the classroom. Subsequently Bruce and I had many dialogues about the obvious benefit technology was having on both his daughter and the other students in the class—and actually many of the students in other special education classrooms in the building who came on a regular visit to our class to use this magical tool for independence and empowerment
I completed my doctoral studies in the winter of 1985. During that period Bruce was closing down an office in Chicago and sold a mainframe in that office he had paid over a million dollars for $40,000. This incident convinced both of us that the fate of every computer ever manufactured was clear and could provide that important solution we were seeking—getting enough computers for the needs to support the educational needs that had become clear to a number of us. Students could be supported by a tool that might otherwise be thrown away or sold three cents on the dollar. Such tools were too valuable to waste.
Bruce McMahan agreed, after some important brainstorming together, that I would leave the Yonkers school district and as a co-founder take on the role of President and he as Chairman, and we would create the National Cristina Foundation. Our goal to make sure that no computer should go to waste when it can be reused to provide important support to develop human potential. Reuse was not yet a word in the lexicon and part of our core work was to put it on the map.
How are the recipients of the donated equipment chosen?
The National Cristina Foundation has a formal registration process that prescreens all potential recipients of equipment donations through our program. Organizations that would like to join the National Cristina Foundation’s network of grassroots partners must complete a grant application this is accessible through our website.
We need to learn about an organization’s programs, their mission and objectives and get confirmation that they are a charity with a non profit status or are a public agency. We do not donate directly to individuals. All recipient groups must sign an Award of Property agreement to assure that the equipment that is donated is being used for the purpose that it was intended.
How much donated equipment has the National Cristina Foundation directed to organizations that need it?
Over the years hundreds of thousands of computer technology items have been directed to eligible organizations in all fifty states and internationally.
Is there a specific kind of equipment that you guys especially need right now?
Pentium 4 level Laptops and Desktop computers. We especially need laptops for wounded or disabled veterans for training programs and children isolated in hospital immunity building programs
Tell us about NCF’s relationship with Dell
Dell contacted us in 2000 because we were asking people to donate equipment online. Dell was selling direct to consumers and this matched their need for how to offer consumers a donation option. We had developed a proprietary database which continues to evolve with really neat features for tracking information both about equipment and the people who are using it. To this day, through Dell’s consumer channel, the equipment is placed in the region of the country from which it is being donated. This helps communities in or close to the town or city where you live, as well as cut down on the amount of fuel needed to ship the equipment where it needs to go. Consumers can access www.dell.com/recycling to take advantage of that option or go directly to www.cristina.org.
We also work closely with Dell’s Asset Recovery Services (ARS) for donation options that businesses can take advantage of in the menu of solutions ARS provides for them as they dispose of their used equipment. That relationship continues to evolve and grow.
Working with Dell has been especially gratifying to me. I particularly enjoy the fact that we share a similar philosophy- that is- it’s not just technology we pay attention to but the people who are at the heart of our work because of how computers can truly benefit their lives.
What is next for the National Cristina Foundation?
It was the dream of myself and Bruce McMahan as co-founders to build an online reuse community as a knowledge community that would engage the interaction of our ever growing number of grassroots partners wherever they may be located.
With the emergence of social networks and all kinds of robust options on the Internet for idea and information exchange, this solution and idea exchange is now able to be properly developed. We call it the Cristina Network and it will be launched in stages over the next two years.