Left to right, ETHS students Quinn McGee, Brendan Frett, Robeson Pompilus and Sualiman Fahnbulleh, members of the Youth Technology Corps, refurbished computers for the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian. Photo by Carolyn Tang.

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At a recent reception, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian gave thanks to its newest benefactor for the donation of several computers. This donation was special not only because it helped modernize a non-profit museum in dire need of updated technology, but also because the equipment was donated by a group of Evanston Township High School students, who restored, installed and networked the computers together.

The students are part of the Youth Technology Corps (YTC), a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that operates an after-school training program that teaches students to rebuild, upgrade and service used computers.  These computers are then donated to local nonprofits.  The YTC was founded in 1988, and is geared toward economically disadvantaged students. However, participation is open to anyone who wishes to get involved.  

Prior to the YTC donation, the Mitchell Museum was lagging in the technology department.  “We had some computers in our library for our researchers, but they weren’t even functional,” said Kathleen McDonald, executive director of the museum.  “The staff was bringing in their own laptops from home, and nothing really interfaced very well.”

Ms. McDonald wanted computers to add interaction to the exhibit spaces, as well as for staff use.  “The YTC was able to provide us with exactly what we needed, and we cajoled a couple laptops out of them as well,” she laughed.  The laptops are used for taking inventory and documenting the collections. “It’s very hard to move objects around all the time to gather data,” Ms. McDonald said.

It was not all work and no play.  One evening when the students were working on the computers, the museum was hosting a flute circle. Some of the students were drawn in, said Ms. McDonald.  “The kids really got into playing the flutes.  It was neat to see the interaction because I don’t think any of them had really been to the museum before,” she said. “And a lot of times kids think museums are dead quiet places!”

Typically, YTC programs are developed for communities struggling with poverty, crime, depleted academic resources and budget constraints.  “Most of our programs are in real inner-city high schools in very rough parts of town,” said Andrew Thomas, a longtime Evanston resident and chairman of the YTC board.  

In 2009, the YTC added its first suburban program, partnering with Evanston Township High School.  “We wanted to diversify our funding base and expand our programs to other communities,” said Mr. Thomas.

Since inception, the Evanston chapter of the YTC has donated computers to the Mitchell Museum and to Family Focus, a non-profit organization that provides family support programs.  Plans are also in the works to provide computers to the YWCA, and to the Children’s Center through the Woman’s Club of Evanston.  “We are also going to be donating computers to a program at the high school called Technology for the Family, which gives computers to families that need them,” Mr. Thomas said.

Brendan Frett graduated from ETHS in 2005, but wanted to stay involved with his alma mater. So six months ago, he joined the YTC.  “I liked computers and I wanted to go back to Evanston Township and work with some students,” Frett explained.  “I wanted to give back.”

Another student was drawn into the YTC when he saw other students working together to fix a computer.  Quinn McGee, a current ETHS student, had never worked with computers before and thought it looked enjoyable.  “Now I’m almost like a professional, but I still need to learn more and get more experience,” Mr. McGee said.

And perhaps there is a cottage industry in the making, as these students take their newly acquired information technology expertise back into their own neighborhoods.  “We do a good job,” said Robeson Pompilus, another current ETHS student. Pompilus proudly related how he fixed his own laptop.  “It was running slow, so I redid everything and it was easy!  Five years ago, I wouldn’t have known where to start,”said Mr. Pompilus.  “I love it.  Now, if my neighbor has a problem like that, I’m going to help them.”