In just the last few weeks, huge portions of our lives have gone online: endless Zoom meetings for work, ordering deliveries and groceries, and socializing almost exclusively over video chats.

But an estimated 17% of Portlanders aren’t connected to the internet. In rural parts of the Northwest, that number balloons to nearly 40%.

With the coronavirus pandemic all but canceling face-to-face interactions, the internet is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity.

“Folks need the internet to be able to see a doctor, to pay their bills, do work so they can continue to get a paycheck or get an education,” said Hilary Shohoney, director of community development for the Portland-based nonprofit Free Geek. “It touches every area of our life right now.”

A Free Geek employee processes computer donations.

A Free Geek employee processes computer donations.

Courtesy of Free Geek

Free Geek takes in used computers and technology, refurbishes them and either gives them away for free or sells them for low cost. In the first weeks of the pandemic, the organization saw the demand for used laptops spike by nearly 4,000%, from about 300 requests per month to 3,000 per week.

“For us, the numbers changed exponentially,” Shohoney said.

A good portion of requests come from students who suddenly need to get online in order to participate in K-12 education or college. Many people are reaching out on behalf of aging parents who are no longer able to visit their doctors. Others are desperate for access to mental health or addiction treatment services.

Free Geek is currently handling several hundred requests a week, but the nonprofit is struggling to keep up with the monumental spike in demand.

“The real limitation for us is having the technology to give away or sell at a low price,” Shohoney said. 

Their biggest need is for laptops with webcams and built-in microphones and speakers.

The nonprofit’s storefront is currently closed, but individuals and organizations can schedule an appointment to donate equipment (how else?) by using their computer.

Send an email to dropoffs@freegeek.org.

Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s “Weekend Edition.”