Kramden Institute Battling Digital Divide One Refurbished Computer At A Time

Volunteers from SAS and Dell help refurbish computers to be donated. The Kramden Institute has donated more than 47,000 computers to those in need.

The Kramden Institute is not the organization it once was.

In fact, it’s better.

What began as a father-son project in Durham by Mark and Ned Dibner to refurbish and fix old computers to donate to middle school students who could not afford home computers has far surpassed its initial goals. 

In the early days, from July 2003 to March 2004, the Dibners were able to refurbish and donate 50 computer systems to middle school students who were without a home computer. They named the organization after their own names: “Kramden” is “Ned” and “Mark” spelled backwards.

Fast forward to today, and Kramden has donated more than 47,000 computers to those in need. So far this year alone, the organization is approaching 4,000 devices refurbished.

“Devices are still the driver of everything we do here at Kramden,” said Cari DelMariani, the Kramden Institute’s Director of Programs. “So I think, for us, growth is really always slightly dependent on those devices.”

But Kramden has now entered a new mission for total digital inclusion and equity.

This mission includes English and Spanish-taught digital literacy classes for adults (mostly seniors) and STEM-related afterschool programs and summer camps.  So far, Kramden has been able to reach more than 8,000 people to date.

According to DelMariani, the pursuit of digital accessibility goes far beyond devices. The importance of a digital device is much larger than that: education, training and understanding of its relevance are key elements as well.

Recently, Kramden added a certification level to their classes that students can add to their resume.

Father-and-son duo Mark (left) and Ned Dibner first started refurbishing and donating used computers in 2003

“We’re making sure that we’re serving people the best way possible and delivering our programs the best way possible for the needs of our community and trying to grow that community whenever possible,” DelMariani said.

Kramden’s Triangle location, surrounded by a growing tech ecosystem and a full supply of used technology devices, has been especially pivotal for its success, DelMariani said. Companies are eager to support Kramden, whether it’s with a computer that has never been used, or even one that’s clearly seen better days. Thomas Walters, Kramden’s Production Manager, says the organization will take all comers.

“We are happy to get a device, whether it is in brand new, immaculate shape, has lived on a shelf its whole life because it was maybe a spare,” said Walters. “But we’re also very happy to get computers that have been through a very tough life.”

Even those devices that are so far gone that they can’t be fully refurbished and donated won’t end up in a landfill; Kramden recycled 268,794 pounds of e-waste last year.

And from the ones that are donated, children’s lives can be transformed, according to Cyndy Yu-Robinson, Kramden’s Executive Director.

“The leadership understands that technology is going to make or break some young person’s experience with education and future workforce development,” Yu-Robinson said.

That’s not to say the Kramden Institute has been all smooth sailing. They had to figure out how to adapt when the coronavirus took away the in-person nature of Kramden’s classes for a period of time. 

While they attempted to offer a virtual version, this could be inaccessible for seniors looking to grow their digital literacy because of the difficulty of using Zoom to even get into the classes.

Plus, as the demand for student computers at home rose alongside online schooling and work, Kramden’s stream of equipment donations slowed.

Said Walters, “There was a real panic mode among corporate donors: ‘We need to hold on to what we have now in case we need to repair them and redeploy them ourselves.'”

On the bright side, the pandemic also brought out a new awareness to digital equity. The importance of having a device to reach the rest of the world became more apparent than ever.

“A lot of people didn’t really understand it, didn’t really understand that teachers were assigning homework online,” DelMariani said. “They didn’t understand that to apply for a job, you had to have computer skills. They didn’t really understand that even telehealth was starting to become a new thing. And the pandemic just really brought that to everybody’s attention.”

About Suzanne Blake 362 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.