The HeliOS Project. It's been a humbling and gratifying experience to receive the emails and phone calls from places like Perth, Sheffield, Bamberg, San Paulo and Los Angeles.
Emails and phone calls congratulating us on our success and sincere thank yous for what we do. It's also been people from these far-away places that have supported our efforts. I never cease to be amazed by their generosity.
Especially because the community we serve is thousands of miles away.
Often, I really don't know how to respond to these communications except to say that you are welcome and to in turn thank them for their support.
However, many of these people want to know how to start a project like this in their community. We're going to outline here, the basics of putting together an effort like The HeliOS Project.
Who needs your help?
Don't look at The Big Picture yet. Look at one family or one child that needs your help and focus on that. Remember that this isn't about who "deserves" to be helped but who "needs" your help. How do you decide that?
Start with teachers, Child Protective Service case workers or Foster Care administrators. Tell them what you want to do and ask them for help in identifying those people.
However there are land mines here. It's important to understand the following:
The word "deserve" gets tossed around a lot in this business. If you analyze it, there is really little to nothing that anyone in this world "deserves". All we really ever "deserve" is what we've worked for. Trouble is, there are many people out there that confuse the concept of deserve with the fact that they "want". I "want" a 50 inch LCD television but I don't deserve one. Keep that in mind when you are choosing the people you help.
And while this is going to be a ghastly politically incorrect thing to say, it needs to be said. Many of the people you will encounter have an ingrained sense of entitlement. Years of being handed their monthly sustenance. and income have conditioned them to this mindset. You will walk into a house or project from time to time and from exterior observation, believe that you've identified a child or family that needs your help.
But when you enter the home, you find my 50 inch LCD television in the living room with a Wii attached to it. Every one in the family has a cell phone and every kid in the home has a TV in their room. A cable premium package transmits 300 channels to every television in the house.
Now you are in a jam...
You've walked into this home with your meager offering and see that there are thousands of dollars of electronic luxuries already there.
It can make you feel a bit foolish. Already the kids are guiding you to the place where the computer is to be set up. This family doesn't "deserve" your help.
Never walk into a home with your offering in hand. You need to "interview" the family first. This way, when you see what they already have, or what they already don't have, you have an out. You will call them back after you deliver your observations to your directors.
Of course, you will have the machine in your car. If everything you see fits your criteria, just go out and get it after "the interview."
In 2005 I was stabbed by a family member for telling them they did not qualify for our help. Not badly, but it taught me a valuable and painful lesson.
Your resources are not infinite. Every computer you give to a family like this means that a family that really needs one won't get it.
This is going to happen to you more times than you expect so be prepared for it.
The numbers on a paycheck don't always tell the story. This is why a simple matrix or formula doesn't work for you. Sure, you have a single mom working two jobs, seemingly making a decent income. But what is she paying for child care while she is working those two jobs? How much is her rent and food each month? That "decent income" suddenly becomes an ongoing question:
Will it be school books for the kids this month or a computer?
Will it be shoes and clothes for the kids this month or a computer?
Will it be paying the rent on time this month or a computer?
These are the people you want to help.
This is why you cannot sit at your desk and make your decisions based on a pre-formulated matrix. Get out there and visit the family. Only then can you make a good decision.
Get your poop in a group.
We now do 300-400 computers a year. We have been fortunate enough to partner with Lynn Bender. Lynn has for two years, organized an event called Linux Against Poverty (http://www.linuxagainstpoverty.org) His efforts have gathered over 400 machines for us in the past two years.
Kids today are being given assignments and research projects that I would have choked on when I was their age. Many of the children you will help will need fairly powerful machines to work with. The Pentium III 700 chips won't do the job. Sure, they can be used for simple internet browsing but for real work, these kids are going to need fairly powerful Pentium 4's...preferably at 2.4 gigs or more.
Often, giving these kids older or slower machines just adds to their frustration. We won't even accept anything under a P4 2.0 gig anymore. We just cannot upgrade it to the point that it is usable for them. 1 gig of RAM is minimum.
Start with your friends or announce what you are doing where you work. When we first started doing this, I went to previous employers and got the machines I needed to get started. You may find that you need a steady stream of machines so use the Public Service Announcement resources you have with abandon. PBS and local NPR stations are great for getting the word out.
Your best bet is to find "drop points" for your donations. Even if this gets moderately successful, you will find yourself spending over a 100 dollars a week just doing pickups and deliveries. Fuel costs are the highest of our expenditures. Skip Guenter, our Director of System Engineering spend over 1900.00 last year in fuel alone.
Find businesses close to where you live and ask them to be a drop-off or collection point for your effort. Make sure to check with them bi-weekly to see if anyone has dropped anything off. The last thing you want to do is piss off a good drop-point.
Most people will not take this to the level of The HeliOS Project. This has turned out to be a full-time thing for me...albeit a near-poverty thing but I made that decision so there's nothing to discuss but remember. This can spiral upward and get way out of hand.
You are going to be amazed at the number of requests you get when the word gets out. Both on the machine donation and computer request ends of the project. That leads to one more important tip:
Just say no to junk.
They don't realize that today's technology has left that machine behind. If you don't outline your needs specifically, you are going to spend your precious financial resources at the local recycling center. Finding a place to get rid of CRT's alone has become a struggle. At an average cost of 10.00 per CRT, the costs add up quickly. That doesn't take into account your fuel and time costs.
We currently have 16 21 inch CRT's in storage costing us 150.00 a month and are 1 month behind in paying for it. Be careful when paying for storage. If you are like us and largely unfunded, you can get into a jam. Unfortunately we have some good stuff stored there as well so we're going to need to find a way to get current. We can't just default and let it all go, although I wish we could.
What software do I use?
Lord, we really need to work on our application names in the Linux world.
UCK has easily allowed us to add and remove programs from the original ISO file and make the distro we need to serve our kids. We are currently working with Ron West to get server space from RackSpace to serve that ISO. Watch the comments section of this blog for that link. If you have server space to spare, we could use additional resources to serve that image.
First off, we did approach Microsoft for XP licenses in 2005 and 2008. Even though they knew what we were doing and who we were serving, the best they could offer us was licenses for XP SP1 for 50.00 per.
Do the math...if you only do 10 computers a year, it's out of financial range for most anyone who wants to do this. We never intended to use Windows except for within VM's like VirtualBox, but still you need legitimate licenses.
Screw Microsoft. Of course I mean that in a loving and supportive way.
How do I organize?
Never underestimate the saying "no good deed goes unpunished". Regardless of your intentions, someone, somewhere is going to pee in your corn flakes.
Two years ago, we delivered a computer to a family in one of the worst housing projects in Central Texas. At that time, we were deploying 21 inch Sony CRT's with the computers we delivered. It was less than a month later that we received notification that we were being sued.
Allegedly, a three year old child in the household was able to pull an 80 pound monitor from the computer desk (which we supplied btw) and it crashed to the floor next to her. The child wasn't hurt but the mother sued us for a number of reasons...her and her attorney.
Maggot. Again I mean that in a loving and....
No I don't.
We were fortunate enough to have an attorney working pro bono for us at the time and his expertise was arbitration. He was able to convince the mother that she couldn't win or be awarded anything due to to the dubious nature of her claim. We replaced the CRT with a 17 inch LCD and walked away.
We were lucky.
Since that incident, we have completely stopped accepting CRT's. Not only are they a potential hazard legally, they are costly to store and storage even in a semi-controlled environment will corrode the innards enough to get you a pretty blue ark when you get around to using it.
Besides, I refuse to carry another one up three flights of stairs.
You will need to become a 501(c)(3) or operate legally under one that is already organized. At this time we do our business under Software in the Public Interest. Being an associate project under SPI is by invitation only and we were fortunate enough to draw their attention.
Your best bet is to become your own non profit, recognized by the IRS. Now, in Texas, you have to register as a state-recognized non profit first. This is fairly simple and costs less then 25.00 to do. Once you are recognized by your Secretary of State, you can then petition the US government for 501(c)(3) status.
Be prepared for sticker shock.
It can and most likely will cost you 1000.00 to do this. The IRS has tightened their requirements for becoming a non profit and have raised the fees to do so in order to discourage people that want to either scam the system or not really use their 501 designator for the purposes stated.
Now you can find a local non profit to slide you in under their umbrella but there are downsides to doing so. You will eventually want to apply for grants available to you. You cannot yourself do this...the actual non profit hosting you will have to do all the work.
Not many are willing to do so.
We have a good friend who is no longer actively using his non profit. He offered it to us and we've begun the task of making it our own. While it is much cheaper to do this, it has been a frustrating and long process...bogged down by administrative obstacles and hassles.
Still, we will eventually become our own non profit for little to no cost.
Again, we were lucky.
Non profits can be set up in a number of ways but it is imperative that you pick the right model for your needs. The HeliOS Project has Directors only, not members...there is an important distinction that you will have to investigate for your organization. A non profit can have Directors AND members It's critically important that you research the distinction.
A good starting point can be found here.
Maybe...depends on how far you take it.
If you are going to be doing one to three computers a month, yeah sure, you can manage it yourself. If it gets any bigger though, you might want to consider forming a pool of volunteers.
But remember, volunteers are just that...they are not employees. They do this on their own time and at their own cost. Having a number volunteers fail you at any given time can be attributed to conflicting schedules or the simple matter of not having the fuel to help out at the time.
The HeliOS Project has a volunteer pool that exceeds 100 people. That isn't to say they are all available the minute we need them. Volunteers are a precious commodity and should be treated as such. If you go beyond a specific amount of machines a month, you are going to need them. Just remember that they work at their own pleasure.
Protect yourself at all times.
Non profit liability insurance for your effort and directors is dirt cheap. I'm just sayin'...
Do the prudent thing and get it. It can save you a lot of trouble. If you happen to damage or break anything in the household, you are covered. Even if you are not a non profit, look into it. Talk to your insurance agent and see if there isn't a solution. It will be worth its weight in quad chips when you need it.
Where do I get the money to do this?
Just ask Joe Singleterry.
Make sure your donations are completely transparent and be prepared to open your books to most anyone who wants to see them. We have had our detractors...those who accuse me of "profiting" from this. We've been accused of being "Scam artists" and liars. It will happen to you to if you reach the level of success we've enjoyed.
I live off of 12,000.00 a year on average so don't expect to get rich...or even be able to pay your bills doing this. At this time, I do not receive a dime in compensation from The HeliOS Project but for full disclosure, I hope to make a modest salary in the future. I make my "regular" money from taking in computer repair work and the occasional corporate contract for Linux admin stuff.
Much of what I make is used for HeliOS Project needs. I then submit reimbursement requests through SPI. Thanks to your donations, I am able to recoup some of what I spend.
Simply asking them to come work with you for a week or so generally shuts them up. Most of these "accusations" will be from obsessed megalomaniacs or anonymous sources. Be prepared to show your work but in most cases, just ignore them. They will get tired of their singular chest-beating and move on.
I am sure there are some things left out here. My intention was to get the basic answers to your questions published and we will add to it as questions come up. Make sure to check comments from time to time. I will address specific issues there as they appear.