By Jessica Connor
GREENVILLE – Years ago, the neighborhood surrounding Aldersgate United Methodist Church was a little more affluent, a little more solidly middle-class. But time has taken a toll on the community.
Between the economy and the shifting demographic, now many of the children who go to school at nearby Lake Forest Elementary are low-income. Trailer parks and apartments edge single-family homes; many people don’t speak English as their primary language – or at all.
At 77 years old, longtime Aldersgate member Paul Morrow had seen the changes coming, but he didn’t realize how they had transformed the school, or the community. Then one day, Morrow was tutoring a young boy at Lake Forest Elementary, and he happened to mention that if the boy would practice on his computer at home, he’d see quick progress.
“But Mr. Morrow, I don’t have a computer at home,” the boy told him.
Instantly, Morrow’s eyes were opened: “It made me feel so bad.”
He looked around and realized the neighborhood wasn’t so affluent; the children more disadvantaged. And he knew what he had to do.
Morrow went to the child’s teacher, Julia Pesavento, and asked whether he could donate his old computer to the boy. She said yes. And just like that, AldersgateKids was born.
Started in 2008, the AldersgateKids computer ministry collects used computers from people and puts them in the hands of needy children, whether low-income, special needs or struggling with English as a second language.
Instead of bringing the computers to a school or community center, the computers usually go directly into the homes of the children, so they can have full access to the tools that help them achieve academic success.
“Usually to a kid it means so much more when it’s ‘your computer,’” Morrow said. “People say, ‘Gee, whiz, they get to play with computers at school,’ but you take an underprivileged kid who gets on a computer at school, and they get pushed off the computer faster by the other kids (who know more). When a computer gets to be theirs, it makes a big difference.”
‘They just don’t believe it’
At first, AldersgateKids was a tiny operation – one or two old computers stored in a janitor’s closet at the church, slowly refurbished by Dale Turner, the lone computer tech.
“Now we pick up truckloads,” said Greg Joens, AldersgateKids volunteer.
Morrow, an active member of Aldersgate’s United Methodist Men, took his vision to that group, recruiting Joens and Turner to help him. Then he began to work his magic. The former purchaser and salesman “went begging,” his friends said, asking anybody in the church if they had a used computer they wished to donate.
Word got around, the Greenville News ran an article on the ministry, and slowly, computers began to pour in.
Now, they give away about four computers a month to children in the local school and elsewhere in the Greenville District, and they store the refurbished machines in a climate-controlled storage unit instead of the church janitor’s closet.
It’s an ironic ministry for Morrow; he is now dubbed “the computer guy,” but actually doesn’t know much about computers.
“I always giggle when they say, ‘Oh, Paul, you’re the computer man’ – I know so little,” Morrow said, chuckling.
But his lack of computer knowledge doesn’t hurt the ministry one bit; all the volunteers have their own unique roles. Morrow makes the connections and Joens picks up the computers, then brings them to Turner and to a trio of senior citizen computer technician volunteers from God’s Pantry, Mauldin, who fix them. They load the computers with educational software, then Joens delivers the computers to Aldersgate, where they are given away in an afternoon ceremony at least once a month.
When the children first see their donated computer, “Their eyes are so big,” Turner said.
“They are invited to come and sit down at the computer, and then it dawns on them. ‘Can I take this home?’ they ask. They just don’t believe it,” Turner said. “Those little faces change right there, just light up like a bright shining light.”
“Sometimes I almost want to cry to see them so happy,” Morrow said. “I just think, ‘Hey, this is it.’ That kid is so proud of that computer. … It’s pretty special.”
It’s also paying off. Julia Pesavento, first-grade teacher at Lake Forest, said the ministry has been a huge help to her students. AldersgateKids relies on teachers like Pesavento, along with other church connections, to help identify children in need who could make good use of a computer.
“The kids are so excited, and they will say, ‘I’m getting a computer today! Today’s the day I’m getting a computer!’ It just helps in so many ways,” Pesavento said.
The learning software installed on each machine helps the children academically, plus the constant access to a computer helps them quickly improve their skills. Pesavento said students do so much on a computer at school now, including major tests four times a year, and better skills help their test performance. Also, for children who speak primarily Spanish at home, having a computer boosts their language skills.
“You can tell the kids who have a computer,” Pesavento said.
Norton Cater, AldersgateKids volunteer from God’s Pantry, said his team’s main purpose in helping the ministry is to see that children are exposed to a computer, recognizing that computer literacy is a requirement for the vast majority of jobs.
“We want to develop working individuals who pay taxes instead of requiring government assistance,” Cater said. “We enjoy hearing that a particular kid, who now has a computer of his own, has responded in a much more positive way to opportunities and is eager to take advantage of his new skills.”
Tool for evangelism, too
The computer ministry has outgrown the neighborhood. In the last year, they’ve donated several computers to Esperanza United Methodist Church, a Hispanic new church start in Greenville that serves low-income immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia and beyond.
And through that connection, they’ve been able to outreach to another local Hispanic church, donating several computers there as well. The hospital has also called to suggest children who would benefit from this ministry.
Not only do the computers meet these families’ real-life needs by helping the children achieve academic success, but they are also modern-day tools for evangelism, volunteers said.
The Rev. Enrique Gordon, Esperanza pastor, said the computers have been a blessing for his members. Esperanza has been heavily engaged in what Gordon calls a “helping hands ministry,” doing whatever it takes to help his congregation’s needs, whatever they may be. Part of that has been an English as a Second Language class for families, who bring their children.
Last year, Esperanza connected with AldersgateKids and received two donated
computers, which the children would use as their parents were taking ESL classes. But they always had to jockey for a spot at a machine – two wasn’t enough for the half-dozen or more learning-hungry children.
So three months ago, AldersgateKids donated three more computers to Esperanza, plus one to the home of an eighth-grade girl.
Now, Gordon said the congregation is reaching out more intensely to children, who use the computers and then bring along their family to worship.
“It allows us to help a tangible need, to put something in their hands where they can come straight from school and use it,” Gordon said.
“They want to come every day if they could,” said Gordon’s wife, Shirley.
So many times in helping the unchurched, Gordon said, it all comes down to trust. And trust is built upon relationships. Gordon said that when people realize the church is helping in this way and doesn’t want anything in return except for them to have a relationship with God, they start to trust the church. Next thing you know, they are coming to worship and – boom – suddenly, they’ve come to Christ.
“It’s like a tool,” Gordon said. “It gets them to God.”
Joens agreed: ˆ“It doesn’t have anything to do with computers at all. It’s all about bringing people to Christ. … The computer may be modern, but the message is 2,000 years old.”