CARS HOMES JOBS

Elfuns turn trash into treasure

GE’s volunteers rebuild donated computers

Monday, March 4, 2013
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GE Elfun's Richard Wang tests computer fans on the second floor of Schenectady Technology Center at the General Electric main plant.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
GE Elfun's Richard Wang tests computer fans on the second floor of Schenectady Technology Center at the General Electric main plant.

— In one corner of an expansive room stacked high with computer towers, General Electric retiree Don Henel, “The Destroyer,” was happily ripping apart an obsolete computer in search of reusable parts.

“I destroy it,” he confirmed, using a screwdriver to pop a plastic housing from the interior of a dilapidated desktop model.

“I have zero warranty problems. None of my stuff comes back,” he joked.

Henel is one of 34 retired General Electric employees who shows up regularly at Building 262 on the Schenectady campus to take part in a computer rehabilitation program spearheaded by the Schenectady Chapter of the Elfun Society, one of GE’s many volunteering groups.

The company’s Capital Region volunteering community is the largest of more than 200 that GE boasts worldwide, according to spokeswoman Christine Horne.

Last year, local GE volunteers participated in 250 volunteer programs, an effort that involved the donation of 62,000 volunteer service hours, she said.

Pitch in

To donate used computers, monitors or printers, contact GE Elfun Computer Rehab of Schenectady at 385-9606 or visit its website.

The Schenectady Elfuns were responsible for about 10,000 of those hours, Horne noted.

Founded in 1928, the Elfun Society was originally envisioned as a means to develop enthusiasm, loyalty and team spirit at GE, but then evolved into a management organization used to keep communication channels open among company leaders. In the 1980s, the society turned its sights to volunteerism and community service.

1,500 members

There are about 1,500 members in the Schenectady Chapter of the Elfun Society, according to chairman Carl Erikson. Enrollment is down considerably from past years due in part to an aging membership and company downsizing, he noted. About 900 of the local Elfuns are senior citizens or retirees, he estimated. But that doesn’t stop the group from getting an impressive amount accomplished.

“We don’t have jobs anymore; we just work,” quipped Terry Lustofin as he led a tour of the expansive computer rehabilitation effort going on in Building 262. A retired quality systems and manufacturing engineering manager, Lustofin has run the computer rehab program for 13 years.

Room after room on the building’s second floor is filled with computer systems in various stages of rehabilitation. Two mornings a week, 25 or 30 volunteers show up to perform repairs, install software and wipe hard drives clean. Printers and copy machines are given new life as well.

The group, which has been in existence for about 20 years, rehabs about 50 systems each month, which are donated to nonprofit organizations and accredited schools.

Last year was their most productive one yet — 650 computer systems were rehabbed and donated. In total, the group has donated 10,000 systems and peripheral items.

“We have computers all over the world,” Lustofin noted proudly. “The majority of the systems go to people within easy driving distance of the Capital District, but we have computer systems that go with church missionaries down to South America, Africa. We’ve worked with Rotary groups that have donated equipment in Pakistan, India and Africa. This past year we donated computers to some schools down in Florida [and] Maryland.”

Fueled by donations from GE and the community, the volunteers never lack projects or requests for the end product of their efforts.

Toy workshop

Down the hall from the computer rehab project, there’s a room that looks like it could be a satellite office for Santa’s workshop. It’s filled with shelves stacked with new toys, and nearby are workbenches where volunteers busily tinker. They’re not elves, but rather Elfuns, and once a week they get together to modify battery-operated playthings so they can be used by children and adults with disabilities.

Volunteers reroute the toys’ controls so that they can be operated by pushing a large button switch made from a peanut butter jar top. The switch can be secured to the headrest of a wheelchair or a wall, or simply set on a table.

General Electric provides the operation with an annual $5,000 grant, which volunteers use to purchase new toys. They go shopping for cartloads at a time and often get curious stares, recounted GE retiree John Hoff, co-chairman of the toy modification program.

“This is one of our favorites,” he said, picking up a black-and-white plastic cow with a body the shape of a softball. To work as the manufacturer intended, pressure needs to be put on the cow’s pliable snout to make the toy jiggle and emit silly sounds. Once modified, the cow can be set into action with the press of the jar-top button switch.

“It’s fun. You get to play with neat toys,” Hoff said of the toy modification effort.

Volunteers also adapt computer mice to make them easier for those with disabilities to operate, and they create special voice recorders used in speech therapy.

Since its inception in 1995, the group has donated approximately 3,000 toys to nonprofit organizations.

Local Elfuns also repair Talking Book machines for the blind and put on science programs for elementary school kids. They join in on many other volunteering ventures as well.

 
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