Welcome to America: Here's your Linux computer

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At my public library job, I run into people from all walks of life.

Recently a mother walked into the computer center where I work and commented, "I just came down down to the library to see what kind of learning resources there are down here." I gave the mom a quick tour of the 28 public Linux stations our library offers for free seven days a week. As a casual afterthought, the mom says, "By the way, here are my two kids. I adopted them two weeks ago." Standing before me were two beautiful children, ages 12 and 8, looking slightly scared but also curious at their new surroundings.

"They don't speak much English yet," the mom added, "but maybe the public library will be a useful resource for them." I replied, "Do bring them by here regularly. If they are interested in self-advancing their learning, the public library is the perfect place for them to do that." I then inquired, "Do your kids have their own computer at home?" Mom replied, "No, they currently borrow my laptop, which is not such an ideal situation." I countered, "Tell them they're getting their own donated desktop computer on Monday next week. I'll prepare it for them over the weekend."

Mom translated my words into Spanish and the kids suddenly looked a lot less scared. Looking into the 12-year-old girl's eyes, I could see myself as a 12-year-old, coming to the United States as an immigrant in 1973. I, too, was scared. Strangers welcomed me and my family. Neighbors loaned and gave my family needed items. Within the first month, I began feeling comfortable in my new country.

So, the following Monday I delivered a lovely Core2Duo desktop computer system with Linux Mint 17.1 XFCE installed. This computer was recently surplussed from the public library where I work. Installed on the computer was:

  • LibreOffice, for writing and documenting
  • Klavaro, a touch-typing tutor
  • TuxPaint, a painting program for kids
  • Scratch, to learn computer programming
  • TeamViewer, so I can volunteer to remotely support this computer

In 10 years time, these kids and their mom may well remember that first Linux computer the family received. Tux was there, as I see it, waiting to welcome these youth to their new country. Without Linux, that surplussed computer might have gotten trashed. Now that computer will get two, four, or maybe even six more years use from students who really value what it has to offer them.

Whomever starts exploring Linux gets a new taste of freedom. If you're a recent immigrant to the United States, freedom of all kinds tastes sweet. Sure, a new computer may look a little different than computers they've used in the past, but they'll adapt quickly to it.

For this family, I'm in touch with their mom via email so she can easily send me questions about their donated computer. In time, the youth themselves will be able to send me emailed questions, or stop by the public library to ask me questions in person. To me, Linux is all about digital inclusion and a more inclusive future is exactly what our world needs.

Smiling librarian standing in front of bookcase
Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 35 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use their public Linux stations.


Superb as usual! I forwarded this posting on to our library system director. Recently I volunteered to teach a class about getting started with Linux at a local soup kitchen. I thought that many of the patrons who are already struggling to get by would appreciate a safe and inexpensive way to become 21st century citizens. Now, your article has prompted me to make the same offer to our library system director. Today I'm volunteering for five hours at our local library and I'm taking my Linux laptop with me to demonstrate its functionality and ease of use to anyone willing to listen.

When I migrated to Australia, I bought an old apple computer from a garage sale for about $10. Guess what I installed on it first: mandrake Linux. It served me well for a year or so until I got a job and settled down.
Linux does provide a very low (cost too) effort barrier to owning a computer and get started immediately.

In reply to by Don Watkins

Must add that I use Linux as my primary desktop since then, both at home and at work.

In reply to by Ken (not verified)

Wonderful story, not just for Linux but the time and caring you went above and beyond the norm.

That is something I have found with the open source community, people are usually more than willing to help somebody else out!

Great story Phil! Would be great if you could give a follow-up, in one or two years. See how the kids learned to use Linux.

Great great story Phil ! Very inspiring.

I loved the article, Phil. If we all do a little bit like this, we can spread Linux/FOSS and close the Digital Divide at the same time. Well done, Phil.

Stu, your Asian Penguins initiative has been a constant inspiration to me. For folks not familiar with Asian Penguins, Stu has written about this initiative here on Opensource.com and has assembled a whole lot of inspiring videos on YouTube. Search YouTube for: Asian Penguins to view these. Whether you live in St. Paul, Seattle, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City, Chattanooga or elsewhere -- there's always creative ways of extending technology access to those with more limited access. Where there is a will, there is way. Start with your public libraries, I say, but by no means don't stop there...

In reply to by Stu Keroff

Great story! GNU/Linux works for real people.

I'm retired now but I did similar work in schools in Canada's remote north. In the schools I reached thousands of students in the normal course of study as a computer teacher and taught them how to deal with the hardware and software using GNU/Linux. This enabled many donated/old PCs to survive for years and to be locally maintained. With that other OS PCs usually died within a year or so and it was a toss up whether air-freight and costs would be paid or they would go to the dump. I taught every Grade 10 student how to install GNU/Linux and juggle parts of ATX PCs and keep them clean. It doesn't take much effort to make a huge difference in a child's life.

The way the Wintel Treadmill works there are millions of barely functional PCs available for the cost of installing GNU/Linux. At my last school, half the PCs would not boot when I arrived. When I left they had acquired 40 more donated PCs and 12 new ATX machines, all but one running GNU/Linux. The school went from having only teachers able to regularly use PCs for school work to every student being able to use a lab and a cluster in every classroom. Cost was just the freight to bring in donated PCs. GNU/Linux was $0 and we used a local server and caches to lighten the load on the Internet connection. GNU/Linux is definitely a force-multiplier in education.


I was very moved to read this comment over on Hacker News --

"I never could afford a computer as a kid growing up. All my computers were donations or throwaways that I tinkered with and learned on and fixed up. My first computer was an SE/30 that was getting thrown away. I ABSOLUTELY would not be where I am today if it was not for the kindness of others who gave me the opportunities to tinker and learn."


I hope that person gets around to setting up an account here on Opensource.com -- and maybe tell their story (stories?) here on Opensource.com If anyone happens to know who they are, kindly pass along that message.

This is a really great gesture. Although I'd use Windows 10 on it (I believe its going to be free).
Easier for everyone, using a tried and tested OS (and not an OS which has been waiting for its year on the desktop :P). But again, great gesture. You deserve an applause. The lazy me actually got up from his bed and applauded you.

It will be free if you're already using (legal) Windows 7 or 8. Those users already got an app called Get Windows 10 in the regular update and they will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 on 29th of July. Unfortunately, the same does not apply for the rest of the people. You will not be able to download Windows 10 for free.

It's not about the price, it's about the freedom. I'm the owner of multiple Microsoft's licenses (Windows 8.1, Office 365, the whole Dreamspark pack, and 1TB of space on OneDrive), but I'm using elementary OS as my primary operating system. It gets the job done, it gets the job done faster and the system is much more elegant while I'm doing my job. Never had any problems with it. :)

In reply to by LinuxIsGreat (not verified)

I believe Windows 10 is only free for upgrades from 7/8 - but also not sure about windows 10 on a core 2 duo. Might meet minimum specs, but we all know minimum specs are only for the O/S, not for the other stuff that they want (let alone would need, like firewall).

In reply to by LinuxIsGreat (not verified)

Very nice and inspiring for both open source and humanity.
Thank you.

Great story and wonderful gift. Thanks for sharing.

Hi Phil,

Wow, what a cool story. I didn't know you were an immigrant. Very touching aspect to the story! I am sure that the kids will treasure that machine.

Is there a local LUG to which you could introduce the kids?

You're the best, Phil!

This is awesome initiation - Very inspiring story, I am also thinking about doing volunteer tutoring on my community in San Diego. If anyone has need , please contact me.

Great story. And it helps bury the canard that Linux is only for techies and geeks.

Great inspiring article.

I've been using Linux since 2009 and we, (UNICEF + local developers) have installed a digital kiosk called "Digital Drum" consisting of Linux based computers hooked to solar panels and loaded with child contents (games, CMD, wikipedia,...). http://goo.gl/jKJwki

It's working greatly like a charm, children really love it.

This story gives me all the feels!

Phil, those kids will remember that computer and you for a long time. Wish I could meet you and shake your hand.

By the way does anybody know citrix has any plans to release a pure 64bit receiver for linux, i am tired installing all the 32bit dependencies , whenever i do a fresh install , also i hate 32bit packages on my 64bit system.

Awesome story! I have tried to spread the Linux/FOSS gospel since I began using it in 2004. I've since that time "converted":
my mother - my younger brother - my youngest brother and his wife - my oldest sister, her husband, their oldest son, - my son (who's 15...) his mother (my ex-wife) and a few cousins and co-workers here and there. I always try to be as "user-friendly" as possible when explaining Linux and what it can do..and what it CAN'T do. Most times the selling point isn't the "free" part as most would think, its the compatibility with MS Office documents using LibreOffice, and it's the ability to enjoy videos / music without having to worry about crashes or glitches of any kind. (BTW I have always shown them the options they face in regards to picking a flavor, most times it's almost always Linux Mint, with either the Cinnamon or MATE desktop interface, I've only had a few "Unity" lovers.) Once they're settled in and have been shown the basics regarding browsing the web, creating and saving office documents and all the little extras that come with Linux I usually don't hear from them again! LoL! Unless its to inquire about some new package or program they heard about and want my opinion on before they install..its efforts such as yours that really help get the word out about FOSS, plus you've changed the lives of two young people forever, what a legacy!!....Awesome dude....just awesome!!

Back in 2001, my wife Heather and I lived in Hamilton, Ontario. Heather opted to do her three-month Master of Social Work practicum for Carleton University doing trauma counselling with former child soldiers and other survivors of the civil war in Sierra Leone. There she collaborated with Irish Catholic sisters who were picking up the pieces of people's lives.

Two years later, she returned to Sierra Leone with an NGO doing trauma counsellor training. The nuns were attempting to find means of providing work skills to young women who had been abducted as “wives” of the rebel soldiers. They were only able to come up with projects like knitting and stitching. Asked what they would really most like to do, these women said “to learn computers”. But no computers were to be had.

When Heather returned to Canada, we pondered how to resolve this impasse. We approached the Ottawa French Public School Board, which we heard had recently replaced a number of computers, to see if they had any surplus systems and, sure enough, they had a room full of dusty, but functional, old machines which they agreed to give us for free.

Several trips in a friend's van had more than thirty of them transferred to our family room. Over several months, and with the help of some not very computer-savvy volunteers from our church, we opened the boxes, cleaned out the dust, and—deciding which were likely to be the best machines—doubled up memory and hard drives.

Then—it was March, 2004—I wiped the Macrohard software from all the drives and installed the current version of Red Hat on them all. Tedious, but gratifying.

We hadn't enough monitors, but Corel Ottawa came to our rescue, donating some surplus ones.

A local mover who was about to make an empty trip from Hamilton to Toronto packed and shipped eighteen computers, monitors, keyboards and mice from our home to the container terminal near Toronto. For free.

An NGO shipped them, again for free, along with other supplies in a container to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the sisters took charge of them and conveyed them inland to their schools.

Unfortunately, we had no control over exactly what would happen with these computers at the other end and the nuns themselves had little expertise. In the end, a self-appointed “expert” and computer trainer wiped all the drives and replaced the Red Hat installs with an out-dated, pirated version of Windows 98. I know, I know. That really hurts. Anyway, we tried our best.

Later we received photographs of adult learners happily working on their “new” computers. Our only out-of-pocket cost was something like $16 for one specialized screwdriver for opening the computer cases.

"Macrohard " ! Priceless.

In reply to by Richard MacPhail (not verified)

Your effort for those people at Sierra Leone got my thumbs-up, not the "expert" on the other end who re-imaged the drives with an inferior OS.

In reply to by Richard MacPhail (not verified)

Nice job.
I would go with Debian stable for ease of mind tho!

I recently looked at the "supoosed free win10 " offer from microsoft. It needs me to load all the back updates onto win7 which took 3 days and about 6 Gigabytes . During this I needed to enlarge my windows partition which trashed the laptop drive. I tried numerous recovery options - none of which worked , though I could have booted my Linux disk .
A shorter route was to remove the disk and restore it on another desktop machine from the backups.

And after all this , I still have not got the magic WIN10 icon .

What a contrast with Linux-Mint when you just run the CD and it finds all the drivers and there are not millions of updates to be applied.

Much more elegant than windows. Bob

I just wanted to comment on the Win10 issue quick too. It is free for anyone with Win 7, 8, or 8.1 and will be available on Julyrics 28th (or 29th?).

I'm not sure what you did that screwed up your PC so bad?! The real or "official" Win10 upgrade that MS is sending out is nothing more than a pre-registration link that shows up on your taskbar, it's an icon of the newer Windows logo. When you click on it you should get a pop up box to enter your email and submit, nothing more to it.

We're you trying to install an RTM or RC version? Also, have you tried restarting to the recovery console and either using a restore point or safe mode to undo whatever you installed or changed?

As far as the "elegance" of Linux I have limited experience and I can not comment personally, but if you go to Microsoft's Digital River you can get any of the Windows Install Disk ISO files free and they will come with ALL of the updates and SP's included in the install ;)

In reply to by bob-uk (not verified)

Great and inspiring story!

Unfortunately I don't know the ins and outs of Linux, I grew up on MS products going back to DOS(!) and they are still used by nearly all businesses I work with.

I have donated a lot of time and computers over the past 8 years or so to people in need of support while working for a local shelter. There is nothing more rewarding than to see the look on a child's face that has never even used a computer!

I'm sure there are a lot of us with old computers and/or parts lying around. It would be great if we could get a group effort going that would all work on doing something similar!

While we may look at an old single or dual core CPU, or 1GB RAM, etc and laugh - you'd be amazed at how much someone could benefit from just being able to have Internet access or a Word/Excel type setup available at home, wherever that may be!

I personally worked with a small local shelter that supported a wide range from the homeless and people going through tough times, single parents, to mothers and children that suffered from abuse. There are many similar facilities worldwide, libraries, adult "education centers" and many more that anyone willing could find a family or child in need.

I am very greatful that my family could afford an old 8086 and 286 based PC as a child, but if it weren't for the wealth of knowledge available to me through the internet, office apps, and general interest in computers, I probably would not have been able to persue the education and career path I did!

I hope I haven't taken away from the OP, I just hope that many of us can take something away from this and keep a project like this going.

This is my personal pledge to find another family near me and donate an old PC.

What a great story. Glad to see you were able to resuse a perfectly viable computer to help kids learn. That's awesome!

Imagine if we could get 10,000 PCs that are no longer needed by companies, throw Linux on them and use them for super comptuing.

There are so many positive truths in this story that I lost count halfway through. The openness, the caring, the offering and forward thinking just to name a few.

For me, stories like this embodies where the open source movement is heading.

I'm looking at it right now...

great article thanks for sharing !!

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