The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
Same mission, same folks...just a different name

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Peek Behind the Curtain

The following email was in my inbox tonight when I arrived home. I did two HeliOS Project installations tonight and I am happy to report to you that upon the last one, we have now built and given away 300 computers to disadvantaged kids in the name of the Linux Community so far in 2008. We have already surpassed out total output for 2007 of 228 machines.

What follows is something that has needed to be said for some time...but you know how I get...

Sometimes, I let important stuff slide a bit longer than it should.

Dear Mr. Starks

Although it's only been a few minutes since you left our home, I am so filled with emotion that I need to tell you just how important your visit to us was today.

You met Casey and Ronnie and of course it's obvious to you now that we aren't exactly well off. Since Ronnie began the sixth grade this year, I have been in a constant state of worry as to how I was going to provide the girls a computer for their school work. We tried the rent to own route but that came close to bankrupting us. How you knew to come to us or even how you knew we exist is still questions I have. Most importantly though, I want you to know that the computers you provided my children are gifts far beyond two machines. They represent a freedom that I could not give my children and a learning tool that is more valuable than any price tag they put on it.

Mr. Starks, I don't know what I would have done without your help and while it's far from proper these days to say it, I hope God blesses you in ways you haven't even thought of. May you feel just a small bit of the joy in your heart that your gift has given us. I am in your debt always.

Cassidy Morgan
Austin Texas XXXXX

No. I could not let that stand...not and sleep well for the next week. This was my response.

Hi There Cassidy.

First off, please...unless I owe you money or you are an attorney, don't call me Mr. Starks. That was my Dad. Ken will do from now on.

Now, let's talk.

You are more than welcome for those two computers. I am both humbled and thankful for your gracious email but there are a few things you need to know Cassidy...I want to give you a peek behind the curtain.

When we started doing this about two years ago, things were a bit less hectic than they are now. As we became known, more and more requests for computers came into our office. It got to the point where we just couldn't financially sustain the pace we were being asked to keep. It was then that I went to the Linux Community and asked for help. Cassidy, precious few responded but the few that did, did so in a meaningful and sustained way.

Their donations are what made those computers available to you. I am simply the mechanic Cassidy. I put the parts together and load the systems on them so they will work without viruses and crashes. That's all I do. It is people just like you and me that make giving your kids those computers possible. People that aren't necessarily wealthy, in fact some of them struggle month to month like many of us. In all though, they manage to send us a few dollars a month to sustain our efforts. Some will forego a night out to eat to make sure we get our monthly donation. That is how much these people care about others like you.

It's them you may want to thank...and by doing this, I am letting them know that you cared enough to do so.

Many of them don't particularly want to be known. Some don't mind us mentioning their names but some do. To be honest, I can't always keep it straight who wants what so I am going to give them a chance to respond to you Cassidy. I accept your thanks and again, you are more than welcome. However it's folks like Gene and Wanda Lake, Jim Jenson, Bob Pianka, Richie Chapman, Carla Schroeder...people you've never heard of that have given you those gifts. There are many more names but I err on the side of caution here...many of them just wish to do what they do in privacy.

I too am grateful for their generosity and by writing this, I am going to give them a chance to talk directly to you, Ronnie and Casey.

And what did you say in your email? "I hope God blesses you in ways you haven't even thought of."

He already has Cassidy.

All-Righty Then,


Amenditman said...


Believe me when I say that the greater blessing is definitely in the giving, not the receiving.

Thank you for your gracious comments, perhaps this will be a spur for others in the 'community' to join our little sub-community.

Also, Mr. Starks, Ken, is far more than a 'mechanic' as I'm sure you realize after having the pleasure of his company in your home. Without his total commitment to this project, it is unlikely to ever have been begun and less likely to continue.

I doubt if I have the stamina to keep up with Ken for a single day, let alone the two years he has been doing this.

The reason I believe in what he does is that I can see the result in a few years. Many of these children will grow up and become generous, giving, and thoughtful adults because of it.

God blesses us all everyday, and I will second your sentiment for Mr. Starks and receive them for myself also.

If you really feel a debt to anyone, pay it back by raising those two children to be people like Ken. People who will give their lives for total strangers because it's the right thing to do and who would feel diminished if they didn't.

And now that I've gushed all over this post I will leave you with a sincere and heartfelt,

God Bless You


einfeldt said...

If I were a rich man, I would come down there to Texas and follow Ken Starks around with my broadcast quality camera. I think that after we do the first version of the Digital Tipping Point, I might just take a month or two off and do that. This is such an interesting story.

We have now rough-edited and loaded about 23% or so of our video onto (search for Digital Tipping Point and you will find it). So we will still have a little more work ahead of us. Quite a little bit. But we are going faster now that Tom King, also of Austin there with Ken Starks, has joined the DTP crew and he is just cranking out video.

Ken, this is really a compelling story, your donation of computers to kids. IMHO, you should write up each and every story from now on. Things I would like to know: how do you meet these people? What reservations to they have about getting Linux? How do they get support? Have you thought about getting them to form a community and support each other? What about creating a google group where they could chat? How do they get Internet access? What do they like to do with their computers? Do the kids' friends come over to see their computers? What do they think of those computers? What about getting churches involved with this effort? What do the parents say to other parents about the computers? Have you thought about getting a truckload of computers shipped to you from the in Berkeley? What about creating a skype group (or some FOSS alternative) so that these kids and their parents can support each other with VOIP? What about having the kids give out Linux CDs to other kids at the schools? What about going to schools that these kids attend and having a systematic giveaway there? What about teaching high school students to fix computers and give them out?

Ken, of all the projects that you are involved with, this project is the one that I like best, because it seems to have the potential to grow beyond just you. Now you are the choke point, the single point of failure. Without you, the whole thing collapses. Just think what could happen if you could now start to scale this up.

I am trying to do exactly this same thing in San Francisco, but I have made only paltry progress with about 10 kids or so, because of support issues and because I can't fix boxes myself. I always run into hardware problems that force me to wait for help from someone else, and so the process is very slow. But you are doing exactly what I would really love to be doing in SF.

IMHO, we need to institutionalize this work and start a non-profit so that we can fund it properly, so that it can scale. At any rate, in the meantime, Ken, you are a leader at showing us what is possible. What would we do without you? I mean really, what _would_ we do without you?

Christian Einfeldt,
Producer, The Digital Tipping Point

einfeldt said...

Oh, one other thing that is limiting our work here in SF: support. Big time. We are seeing that the newbies are having normal, hand-holding issues. Simple things. Basic user issues. Our adoption rate would probably be higher if we could establish some kind of follow up with the kids and their families. We need a robust community and a database to track these folks and to create events to bring them back into events where they can meet each other and take an interest in each other's lives and computing needs. I think we would be more successful if we could have rotating coffee clatches or something similar like that where we could get people to show up, like pot lucks or something like that. It's an issues of trust. An issue of moving beyond just computers. An issue of using social networks like churches where people already have natural, meaningful trust relationships with each other, and then grafting the FOSS movement quietly onto those groups to support those groups in what they naturally do anyway.

Anonymous said...


Having volunteered my time for The HeliOS Project, I can assure you that Ken is far more than just a "mechanic". He is the heart and soul of this project. Someone I want to mention also is Ryan Sommers. Ryan is a Staff Sergeant in the US Army serving in Afghanistan at this time and Ryan did some amazing things for the project as well.

There are many people who have received computers from HeliOS Project. I want to thank you personally for recognizing the value of this effort Cassidy. I hope things go well for you and yours.


James Dixon said...

> Oh, one other thing that is limiting our work here in SF: support.

The folks who make Asterisk (Digium) used to run a tech support forum at Techs' signed on to assist folks and people posted their questions asking for help. I did some volunteer work there for a while.

It sounded like a great idea, and seemed to work for a while, but the supply of people answering questions seemed to dry up after a while. The forum eventually died due to technical problems and wasn't resurrected.

The closest current equivalent that I know of is, but I can't really recommend them to newbies, as I've seen some less than polite responses there.

Maybe someone could start up another such service, but it would have to be moderated, so it would require a fair amount of time and upkeep.

Amenditman said...

@James Dixon

I am not a Linux Guru, but can handle just about anything an install gone wrong can throw at you.

Been there, MANY times, done that.

I don't know anything about hosting a website or setting up a forum, but I could volunteer 7 - 10 hours a week, maybe a little more, evenings and some weekend hours Eastern standard time to help moderate a new users forum.

We could also link the site to the Austin Live Linux Initiative if the boss wanted to.

You can get my contact info from helios.


Ken Jennings said...

Mr Starks, (heh)

I've got one or two of those original Walmart white boxes from a few years ago. They had been running openSuse 8 and 9 just fine back then. But, I upgraded to new do-it-yourself white boxes a while ago when I found they old boxes had leaky capacitors. They were still working then despite the cap problem. Some time ago I bought what I think are the right caps, but neglected to purchase the necessary Round Tuit to make the work possible. If you have someone who wants to be bothered with trying to get these things in serviceable condition I'll send the entire case/motherboards where you want. (BTW, the power supplies suck and I probably threw one out.)

Blog of helios said...

Hey Jim,

It's good to hear from you. Yes I can do something with those boxes believe it or not. I will email you with specific instructions if you like and we can go from there. You've been an important and valued friend to what we do and I appreciate your being part of what we do far past my ability to express it.


Ken Jennings said...

Jim? What? No, Ken. The other Ken.

Yeah, send me an email for where you want my cast-offs delivered. My wife will be happy to see my junk pile get smaller.