COLUMBIA — Jeremy Santiago, 12, sits at the desk in his room; the light from the computer screen illuminates his face. He moves the mouse in his right hand, as math equations start to fall down the screen. Jeremy’s mother, Jeanette Santiago, watches her oldest son intently as he fills in answers to the problems.
Santiago home-schools her four children but until relatively recently hadn't been able to use educational computer games with her curriculum. The Santiagos made trips to the library so the children could use the computers there. “We just couldn’t invest in a computer for the children,” Santiago said.
In September, Santiago took the unusual step of asking for a free computer. She decided to post a want ad for one on the online network Freecycle.org, a global network of local communities where individuals can post items they need or don’t want anymore. The stipulation: Everything is free.
Santiago found the site after looking up “free” on Yahoo. “I’m always interested in finding free stuff, so I joined,” Santiago said.
To her surprise, her post for the computer was answered.
When Jordan Grant saw the Santiagos' ad, he had just what she was looking for. Grant, a software developer for Carfax in Columbia, started building computers as a hobby, after accumulating used parts on Freecycle. “It started that I just noticed that someone put up some nonworking computers. I thought, might as well see what it is 'cause I can do a lot with it. Ended up getting it, and then just asking around on Freecycle for the pieces that I needed — ended up building a working computer, and then just gave it away.”
Growing up, Grant was interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. As a kid, he remembers taking apart his father’s broken camcorder, breaking it down until it was little springs and screws. “I’m sure I thought I was going to memorize it and try to put it back together,” Grant said. He didn’t.
Grant started taking apart and building computers and working with software in high school. He received his first computer as a gift from his grandmother after he graduated, and then started building his own after that. “I would have probably started earlier if my dad would have let me tinker in his computer, but no, it was too much of an investment for him,” Grant said.
Grant said one of the best parts of giving away the computers is seeing kids use them. “I know I was always lucky enough to have a computer around. But (now) I figure I can use what I know to help other people,” he said.
Big effect on family
Across town, Shannon Crossman, an administrative assistant at the Youth Empowerment Zone, couldn’t believe her eyes when she read Grant’s ad for a free computer. “I figured someone would have it before I got to it, and someone did, but they didn’t show,” she said. She explains that sometimes people respond to ads, then never follow through and pick up the items.
This has happened to Grant several times, and he said it’s difficult to decide who should receive the computer. “It’s just kind of a call I’ve got to make on who I think needs it the most,” Grant said. When he came in contact with Crossman, he knew it would serve a need and brought the computer to her house to set it up. It was the first computer he gave away on Freecycle.
“For him to personally be the one to come over and set it up, because of how it’s set up, you know and explain it, too, and be so nice — not, you know, like he’s giving a handout and, 'Here, be grateful.' His persona wasn’t like that at all,” Crossman said.
The computer had a huge effect on her life. She said she loves seeing her children use the computer at home. Crossman’s two teenage sons use the Internet to go on MySpace and work on music, her 9-year-old daughter likes to write stories and songs to sing at church.
“To see how happy she is afterward, and I think that would be the best," Crossman said about her daughter's success on the computer. "To see that joy on her face, and then to be at church and for her to sing that song that she was able to take the time to do.”
In addition to working at Youth Empowerment Zone, Crossman is the secretary of her church. Without Internet access at home, she felt less productive because she couldn’t receive information from the pastor.
“We’re just getting our church Web site together, you know, so being able to do that communication without having to run up my cell bill or without having to get those stupid prepaid cards for the long distance for the house phones," she said. "It’s so convenient.”
Before Crossman found Grant’s ad, she used library and work computers. Buying one for the home wasn’t an option for her family.
“It’s only four or five hundred bucks at Walmart," she said. "OK, well, let’s go buy a computer — or pay the electric bill, you know, and be able to eat. You know for a lot of us in (the First Ward), that’s how it is.”
Giving back to the community and service has always been a part of Grant’s life. “I believe those ideals come from being an Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts of America, from being a veteran of the war in Iraq, and from my parents," he said. "I think it’s important to, you know, help people in the community and just make it better.”
Crossman is grateful to Grant for improving her and her family’s life. “I just wanna say God bless him, you know, to have that kind of a heart and that kind of a spirit, that’s very rare nowadays,” she said.
Because he can
Grant said he’ll keep making and giving away free computers as long as it interests him. “One of the ladies had a kid who, you know, had asked, 'Why would someone give a computer away?' and I said just 'cause there’s a lot of technology out there that people will turn their nose up at, or just not want anymore because they can get something that’s better," he said. "And there’s people out there that can just, you know, put it back together as a hobby. When that little girl asked me, it’s well, you know, because I can. It’s kinda' nice.”
When Grant saw the Santiago's ad, he had just given away his second computer on Freecycle. He figured that because they asked for the computer, the family probably had a great need for it. He started building his third one for the Santiago's, tracking down parts he didn’t have. A couple of weeks later, he completed the computer.
Grant also installed the computer for the Santiago's. He told the kids how to find educational games and even came back to fix it after Justin, 10, tried to download something that didn’t work.
“Something happened, and he just came and repaired it,” Santiago said.
Jeremy loves the science games on the computer, especially one that teaches constellations. Santiago says the kids enjoy playing the games much more than listening to her try to explain it. Even the youngest knows how to get on, click on the computer icons and open the games.
“He’s blessed our family with a system, that’s hard to come by,” Santiago said.
The periodic table flashes across the computer screen. Jeremy clicks the mouse and opens another game. Justin gazes over his shoulder and eagerly tells his brother answers to the problems floating down the screen.