Rich Romaneck, who has been a software engineer, licensed practical nurse and an anesthesia technician, thrives on reinvention.
So his latest transition — joining a program devoted to rebuilding used computers for Long Islanders who can't afford them — came as naturally to him as breathing.
Romaneck, 69, of Lake Ronkonkoma found his new calling while reading a newsletter for retirees of Northrop Grumman Corp., where he had worked for 31 years. An article described the Community Computer Connections Program (CCCP), one of several services offered by the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, most often referred to as RSVP, which enlists the help of retirees who use their diverse skills to help others in various areas. The program's description piqued Romaneck's interest. "I was looking for something like that," he said, "challenging and rewarding."
He contacted CCCP's founder and coordinator, Joel Becker, a retired antenna engineer from Hauppauge who worked with Long Island companies involved in defense electronics before opening his own business in 1979 as a consultant designing antennae.
CCCP has about 45 mostly retired volunteers who refurbish used computers donated by libraries, corporations, Suffolk County, Brookhaven Town and individuals (see box). The reconditioned computers are provided free to those in need. Since 2006, the computers have been installed in nearly 2,400 homes, said Becker, who is 78.
"I gradually started retiring around 2000," he said. Two years later, he helped launch an adopt-a-family program that paired volunteers with low-income families needing food, clothing and other support. Among the items provided were used computers, refurbished for children. "I realized that families with kids needed so much help that the last thing they could afford to buy for their kids was a computer," Becker explained. "As the Internet was becoming a very valuable resource, these kids would need computers to keep up and get ahead in school."
Seniors, single-parent families, people living in group homes, victims of domestic violence, those who have lost their jobs, people with disabilities and agencies that assist people with HIV/AIDS are among CCCP's clients. "The need is great and increasing, especially nowadays," Becker said.
When the computer aspect of that program lost its sponsor in 2006, Becker teamed up with the federally funded RSVP organization in Smithtown to create the CCCP. The all-volunteer CCCP became a Microsoft Registered Refurbisher, authorized as a nonprofit to purchase the Microsoft Windows Operating System for $6 a computer. RSVP seeks grants to cover the cost for Windows, hard drives and support equipment for each computer, including a mouse.
All at no cost
After removing data from the donated hard drives and repairing any problems, the refurbishers install Windows XP or Windows 7, free educational and other software, and an anti-virus program, all at no cost to the new owners. Clients get a number to call if problems develop, but they must pay for their own Internet service.
In addition to the refurbishers — many of whom are retired engineers from across the Island who do the work at home — the program provides transporters who pick up donated computers and deliver them to the refurbishers. Other volunteers install the computers in clients' homes and give a brief lesson on how to use them.
The volunteers, Becker said, "are mostly people who have worked all their lives, who are retired and find themselves with time on their hands and say, 'What do I want to spend the rest of my life doing? Give back to the community.' " There also are some who are still working but who volunteer on weekends, he said.
Romaneck devotes 15 to 20 hours a week to refurbishing. "I have quite a bit of hands-on with hardware and software," he said. Since volunteering for CCCP in 2008, he has renewed about 400 computers. "When you read what people are going through and understand how you can change their life, it's extremely satisfying," he said. "Most of us can afford a computer and take it for granted, but if you don't have one, you're at a big disadvantage."
Peter Harrington, 77, a former Grumman software engineer, has been with CCCP since 2006. He repairs computers from one to seven hours a day and estimates he has refurbished hundreds of them at his Oyster Bay home. "I was retired and was looking for something to keep me busy," Harrington said. "It sounded like a good fit for me. I have my experience and my knowledge and I get a lot of satisfaction out of being able to help a lot of people. These days you have to know how to use a computer in order to participate in the economic life of the country. And now people can contact their friends and relatives through email, do job searches, and students can use it for course work."
For Lisa Simpson, a single mother of two from Wyandanch, CCCP was the answer to a prayer.
"It's an excellent program," she said. A virus wrecked her family computer and she needed a replacement, especially for her daughter, Shanel Young, 14, and her son, Tilik Young, 10. "My daughter likes to write short stories," Simpson said. "She didn't have a computer to put her thoughts down. My son likes to play the games."
Simpson works nights as a U.S. Postal Service mail handler, so she couldn't escort her children to the library to use the computers there, and she couldn't afford a new one.
"I was praying," she said. "I didn't know where to get the money from."
'It was a blessing'
A friend told her about CCCP and she called. "They said they had a computer for me. It was a blessing. The computer came with an anti-virus protection program, games for my son, and they put a notebook on there for my daughter," Simpson said. "My daughter is writing. She took some of her work to school, and her teacher was amazed."
Another client, Gritley Morris, 77, of Westbury, wanted a computer to communicate with her adult children on the island of Jamaica. CCCP brought one quickly, but she can't afford to have an Internet hookup, so her usage is limited. "I can turn it on and get games," she said.
One of Becker's primary roles is raising donations for CCCP's operating funds. "I beat the bushes, so to speak," he said, "getting grants" from companies such as Computer Associates and Capital One Bank.
"I always felt there was a lot of injustice in the world, and I try to do something where I can get a feeling of satisfaction in my own small way," Becker said. "Our biggest need now is for volunteers who are technically oriented — installers — and people with transportation."
Pegi Orsino, Suffolk RSVP executive director, said other volunteers also call homebound seniors, run errands for them and visit senior centers to talk about managing chronic health conditions.
"Seniors have so much to give," she said. "Joel Becker came to us with this fabulous idea. There are so many financially challenged families. We take it for granted that everybody has a computer, but that's not true."
How you can help
The Community Computer Connections Program accepts donated computers that are 5 years old or newer.
— Those who are technically oriented to refurbish and install computers
— Drivers with vehicles to pick up bulk donations of computers from corporations and libraries and transport them to the refurbishers; after they're reconditioned, deliver them to the social services agencies that distribute them
— A program coordinator to replace Joel Becker, who will concentrate on fundraising and obtaining equipment next year; should be able to work 10 hours a week, direct managers and conduct meetings. Experience is not required but would be helpful. Call 631-979-9490 or go to bit.ly/TEBrSI.