PCs For People

A national nonprofit that provides laptops and wireless service to low-income families has its origin in Mankato, where a high school student was kicked out of his school for hacking into its computer system.

That teenager soon fell on the radar of Andy Elofson, a social worker with Blue Earth County and a Minnesota State University, Mankato graduate in experiential education. His emphasis was on helping wayward kids get back into the community by capitalizing on their interests.

Andy Elofson with a van full of donated, refurbished PCs.

“Getting kids jobs in auto places if they were a grease monkey, or bike shop if they were a bike kid or Harley if they were into small motors,” Elofson said. “I tried to connect them to where their aptitudes and strengths were.” His degree in experiential ed fit the job well.

“It was perfect with the work I was doing in the community and the kids who needed hands-on stuff,” Elofson said.

Around the time he started working with the young computer hacker, Elofson noticed a few computers being discarded by colleagues replacing their equipment. He was given the go-ahead to take and give one to the expelled student who, Elofson said, couldn’t afford his own.

He also put a call into an internet service provider, Internet Connections, headed at the time by Yvonne Cariveau (who today is the director of the University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship). Cariveau was able to connect the young man with a project for an area church that needed a website built.

“So he’s down at the church wearing a nice shirt and slacks three days a week at the ISP working,” Elofson laughed. “I’m thinking this is good stuff. So as more computers started to show up—my role as a social worker is to give people tools and opportunities to be successful—I just started passing out these computers.” The recipients were low-income residents without computers.

Casey Sorenson at work refurbishing and reselling computers for low-income families.

As word spread of Elofson’s success with used computers, he was quickly besieged with donations of second-hand computers and accessories. He brought in interns from area schools to help staff what he called a “food shelf of technology.”

One of the interns was Casey Sorenson, a management information systems major at Minnesota State Mankato. Growing up in rural Montana, Sorenson at age 9 got his hands on an IBM computer and a copy of “DOS For Dummies” and never looked back.

Sorenson interned with Elofson refurbishing and distributing computers to low-income families for three years before graduating in 2005. Three years later, Sorenson called his former boss with an idea for a business.

“I called Andy and said ‘I’m thinking about quitting my job and taking your concept and thinking we can formalize it and create a business out of it,’” Sorenson said. Elofson reminded him that there was no real money to be made in the model. Sorenson nonetheless quit his job, rounded up 400 discarded computers from local Twin Cities businesses, filed the paperwork for a nonprofit corporation, and PCs for People was born in St. Paul.

Sorenson and Elofson at the White House in 2016, when Sorenson was invited to speak as an industry expert for President Barack Obama’s ConnectALL Summit for Digital Inclusion.

“Two weeks after opening, all 400 computers were gone,” said Sorenson, who is now the CEO of the company that currently has facilities in Minnesota, Colorado, Ohio, Maryland and Missouri. 

In every community, the concept is the same: Aiding low-income families by offering not only affordable computers, but internet service and equipment repair. 

Sorenson said the average household served by the company is a family of three living on $15,000 a year. Fifty-eight percent of the households served are unemployed, and 60 percent have never owned a computer prior.

Since opening PCs for People 12 years ago, 450,000 homes have received computers; after the first year of computers in the home, Sorenson said, incomes go up about 15 percent.

“A lot of what we built today was based on the original framework of what Andy was doing in the county,” Sorenson said.

In Minnesota, 20 percent of the company’s workers are people with disabilities, primarily on the autism spectrum, who are getting on-the-job-training in computer skills that are vital to securing employment.

In Colorado, the company works with troubled high school youth and college students who can get free training as well, and in Ohio the company works with the prison system to teach refurbishing and repair skills to prisoners.

“So when someone re-enters society they have this newly learned skill,” Sorenson said.

Computers are refurbished in facilities in four states.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the company hard. Donations are down as businesses had employees work remotely. Interaction has slowed over health precautions.

“Overnight, everyone needs a computer for education, health care, remote work. So the demand has gone up by 350 percent while supply has fallen. So we’ve scrambled to try to keep up,“ Sorenson said.

“We need computers now. Administrators are trying to figure out what does back-to-school look like? We’re pretty sure it’s not going to be what it used to look like. So there’s still this massive demand for technology so education can continue.”

Elofson remains a social worker in Blue Earth County, his focus on homelessness. He still tends to the Mankato office of PCs for People.

“I don’t wave the flag a lot but the PCs for People thing is some of the best work I get a chance to do,” he says. 

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