By Jonnelle Davis email Jonnelle Davis
GREENSBORO — Demell Towers tried out a new job recently at the HandyCapable Network. He sat behind the desk greeting visitors to the nonprofit while he stuffed envelopes.
But for most of Towers’ six years there, he’s been a “handy tech,” helping to refurbish the desk and laptop computers that HandyCapable sells to individuals and organizations at a reduced cost.
“I like this job,” said Towers, 32, who uses a wheelchair. “It’s a community effort, so I like working for the community.”
Now, it’s the community that HandyCapable is turning to for help in saving the 10-year-old nonprofit as it struggles to secure the donations it once so reliably received.
Its executive director, Anne Tubaugh, recently sent a message to supporters pleading for donations to keep the doors open at its downtown offices. And HandyCapable has started an online campaign to raise money at the same time that it’s implementing a plan to turn around its finances.
The campaign had raised about $1,600 of a $5,000 goal as of early Friday.
“Honestly, that’s just to get people to start donating,” said Tubaugh, who hopes to raise $50,000 by the end of the year to keep the organization stabilized until it can improve its financial picture.
Since 2006, HandyCapable has repaired and sold computers at a low cost to families and individuals in the community. Companies such as Moses Cone Hospital and Lincoln Financial donate their old computers to HandyCapable. Adults with developmental and physical disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy volunteer there, wiping clean the hard drives, breaking down computers for their parts and sorting which ones can be repaired and resold.
The nonprofit has also given computers to families who can’t afford it, such as those who have children attending Title I schools in Guilford County. HandyCapable also provides discount computer services to other nonprofits in the community.
About 20 techs currently volunteer there. Tubaugh said while the nonprofit does not pay the techs, most of them consider the work they do a job. Other staff and volunteers do the work that the techs are unable to do, she said.
Some of the techs, like Kim Greene, have been with the organization since its beginnings. Greene, 53, has helped to train other techs who volunteer there.
“It gets me out of the house,” Greene said of her work at the nonprofit.
“Kim likes to stay active,” Tubaugh said, adding that Greene starts and ends her day by giving employees a hug. “She will do anything we ask of her.”
This nonprofit, which operates off a $250,000 budget, has a very small, active donor base, but Tubaugh said area charitable foundations have traditionally funded Handy Capable.
But Tubaugh said what she has heard from those foundations during the past year is that they are focusing their funding on specific priorities such as LeBauer Park or Say Yes to Education, leaving those organizations dependent upon them in the past scrambling to find other options.
HandyCapable was ineligible to apply for grant funds last year because it’s in an off-cycle grant year and had to incur more expenses to relocate this summer because it was facing a rent increase in its old location, which was also too small for the nonprofit’s needs.
It moved in June from West Friendly Avenue to a larger space on North Edgeworth Street.
“That was the leap of faith,” said Lowell Rhodes, secretary for HandyCapable’s board of directors.
“And it will pay off,” Tubaugh said. “I know it will. I believe in HandyCapable. I believe in its mission. I know I’m not alone.”
Scott McBride has faith in the organization, too. McBride, who has a background in network engineering, joined the HandyCapable board in the spring. His 17-year-old son, Charles, is autistic, and McBride said Tubaugh encouraged him to let Charles volunteer there. McBride said he was unsure how his son would respond in that environment but took him to HandyCapable one day, helped get him started on a computer and then stood back and watched him work. McBride said his son, who loves working with hands, took to the task “like a fish to water.”
McBride said Charles has been consistently volunteering at HandyCapable for three months and can take apart a computer in 20 to 30 minutes. He added that his son’s positive experience there has given him a greater sense of ownership of the nonprofit and more of a reason to be involved.
He said the organization is multi-layered, helping to provide a purpose for people with disabilities, while at the same time helping families to have a computer who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
“They don’t do one thing,” McBride said. “It’s all layered together to accomplish several things at each layer.”
Stephanie Antkowiak, director of the The Arc of High Point, enlisted the help of HandyCapable to set up the computer lab at her nonprofit. The Arc last year received a grant to create the lab as part of a vocational program it offers. She said she purchased nine computers and that HandyCapable staff handled all the setup of the equipment.
The grand total: $700.
“You have absolutely no idea how much more affordable it was for a nonprofit,” said Antkowiak, adding that she probably would have spent about $500 per computer if she had bought new ones.
Tubaugh said she’s dipped into the nonprofit’s funding reserves — a savings account of sorts — to help pay its operating expenses.
And although it was an extra expense, Rhodes said the move to the 4,500-square-foot space on North Edgeworth Street will aid the organization in its turnaround efforts, because the large space can hold more inventory for the techs to refurbish and sell.
However, Tubaugh said the turnaround time from when a refurbished computer turns into a cash profit can vary, so the group can’t rely on that as steady cash flow. In addition to trying to increase its corporate donations,
HandyCapable is also hoping to increase its individual donors and better market what it does, and volunteers are giving tours of its operations to increase awareness of the work done there.
Tubaugh said HandyCapable also is going to start charging a fee for the computer camps it hosts. Those camps — which teach participants how to build computers — have been held in the summer, but Tubaugh said she will start to offer them on the weekends this fall. The organization is also planning to have an annual spring fundraiser.
Tubaugh said she knows people like what HandyCapable does, and that it’s a resource people know is available. She gets great feedback on her nonprofit.
“The problem is we just have to have that cash as well,” she said.