By Susan Dugan
When Denver native Rose Keating graduated from Metropolitan State in 1974 with a degree in computer programming, she decided to head east, instead of west, to seek her fortune. “It wasn’t that Colorado didn’t have jobs,” she says. “I just knew I didn’t have the experience I needed to compete.”
While working out of state for several years, Keating also gained crucial experience in Florida while volunteering for the space program. When she returned to Denver, she went through the Yellow Pages to identify companies that might contract out for technology assistance. “I ended up having credentials through the supervisor who took care of me in the Space Shuttle program that later got me jobs here with Lockheed Martin,” she says. “I got into oil and gas and ended up with the pipeline businesses and the distribution centers. I was able to do some very interesting and innovative things, develop my own software and form my own company [Keating Companies].”
Rose Keating poses at Denver Tech For All. Photo by Sara Hertwig.
In 1999, when she found herself in possession of three used computers, she had no idea her quandary about what to do with them would spark the genesis for Tech For All, a nonprofit organization that collects, reconditions and donates used computer equipment to needy individuals. “I put them in the back of my 1968 Ford pickup that had been my dad’s and took them to a recycling place,” she says. “But while walking through the store, I noticed they didn’t have anything near as nice as the ones I was turning in. So I asked the guy if they’d be interested in buying these for the store but he offered me next to nothing.”
Keating took them home, put them on her backyard picnic table and went to work. “I cleaned them up and relayed the operating systems and they were sweet, brand new with clean hard drives. The sun started beating on me and I got a beer and threw myself on the chaise lounge, wondering why I had spent the whole day doing this? It was a Thursday, about 2:30 in the afternoon, and I lived five blocks from Rishel Middle School. Three little boys walked by and I asked if they had computers and they said no. So I pointed to the ones on the table and told them that if it was okay with their folks, they could each have one.”
The children returned in minutes with mothers and grandmothers, and Keating started showing them how the computers worked. “Around 4:30, their daddys came,” she says. “They were all laborers, dirty and very tired. They kept saying, how much money, dollars? Because this was nice equipment; I don’t think these computers were even four years old.”
Eventually, the fathers accepted the gifts. The following Monday, Keating pulled into her driveway at the end of the working day. “In my peripheral vision, I saw three sets of cowboy boots and there were the same men in clean black jeans and starched white shirts,” she says. “This one man pulled a yellow pad out of his pocket with a brief thank you written in broken English, and they were all nodding. One of their children had written it for them. I’ll tell you, every hair on the back of my head stood up because I had helped men just like my Dad, who was an electrician and worked so hard, too. And [I realized] there would never have been money for a computer for us, either.”
After that, notes appeared on her front door from other people asking if she had any more computers. “My walk was always shoveled and sometimes big bags of tamales appeared,” Keating says, laughing. “So every time I was in a building that had a computer sitting in the hallway, I’d ask what are you doing with that.” She started taking equipment home, reconditioning it and giving it away, and people started donating more computers. When she ran out of kitchen space, operations spilled over into her garage.
By 2003, Keating had filled her garage, given away more than 100 computers and could barely keep up with constant donations. That’s when a series of coincidences she considers nothing short of miraculous led her to a space for rent at West Alameda Avenue and Tejon Street, ideally situated near Valverde Elementary and Rishel Middle Schools. Between Christmas and New Year’s of 2003, she held an open house and asked for support and volunteers. She also hired homeless men from the Saint Francis Center.
While preparing to vacate that space in June 2004 because it was being torn down, Keating again found herself led through a maze of synchronistic referrals, this time to late Denver businessman, Tom Gamel, the [then] owner of Tech For All’s current location at 1709 S. Acoma St. (now owned by his son David, likewise Tech For All’s “champion”). “On the spot, Mr. Gamel put a key in my hand and said, ‘your home is with us,’” Keating says. “So, he donated the space and we had another Christmas open house and out of that came seven volunteers. That allowed me to more than triple the amount of equipment we gave away from 2004 to 2005.”
Keating also learned how to recycle equipment to make money for the growing nonprofit. For many years, she trained and employed a team of developmentally disabled adults. “We treated them with respect and taught them and they took great pride in helping kids get computers,” she says. When that effort recently became too much, after Keating experienced a health crisis, Tech For All began relying on an ethical recycler.
To date, Tech For All has given away nearly 10,000 computers to needy children, adults and families. “And it’s all because of our volunteers,” Keating says, noting the nonprofit’s exponential growth. “On my own, I could only make a very small difference, but once we had the space and volunteers, it really took off. All I have to do is show up, make sure the bills are paid and everybody is thanked and make some lunch [provided for volunteers daily]. The act of being a volunteer is a terribly exciting thing. And you don’t have to have a tech background to help us here.”
The smiles on kids’ faces and the homey atmosphere Keating has created have kept volunteers giving their time to Tech For All for many years. On a recent Saturday morning, several help a family of five children, whose mother is also taking college classes, get set up with recently donated Netbooks, while a grandmother and three grandchildren wait patiently in the hallway for their turn, and a revolving handful of others, who have scheduled a visit to adopt a computer, line up on the sidewalk outside. In a back room, several volunteer students from Cherry Creek High School work on donated equipment.
Tech For All has also made its presence known internationally, through its relationship with African Bold Leaders, who have brought computers to Tanzania. The nonprofit has refurbished computers for a Burundi community through its relationship with the Colorado Coalition of African Empowerment. Tech For All has been recognized with several awards and Rose Keating received the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award in 2007.
Keating believes Tech For All helps level the playing field for kids from families struggling to make ends meet. “For kids today, not having a computer is like us going to school back then without having a pencil,” she says. “I want to see the kids’ faces when they leave. Now they have the tools. I want to see the mom’s and dad’s and grandmother’s eyes relax when they bring their children in. Tech For All has become so much bigger than anything I could ever have imagined in the beginning. But I had no choice about all this, it chose me.”
For more information about volunteering, donating and/or adopting a computer from Tech For All, call 303-989-2832 or visit denvertechforall.org.
Author Susan Dugan’s wide range of work includes newspaper and magazine articles, personal essays and fiction. An active volunteer in local schools, she has taught creative writing and brought authors into classrooms. If you know a member of our community who is contributing in extraordinary ways and might make a good subject for this column, email Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.