By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
Gene Brande understands the lack of interest that many senior citizens show toward learning to use computers.
"They're afraid that they'll do something wrong on the keyboard, and the thing will go, Boom!'" Brande said. "They really need to get involved. I mean, that's the world now, you know?"
Brande started learning how to use computers at age 60 in order to compose his life story.
"I had always wanted to write," he said, noting the school newspaper that he started in elementary school and the story that he penned as a first grader and still keeps.
So Brande took WordPerfect classes at the College of the Redwoods and worked to repair his wife's old computer.
He learned to e-mail, instant message and send photos to his children and grandchildren. He found he could listen to music over the machine's speaker.
The 73-year-old has printed the project that launched his cyberworld interest in the form of 150 short stories. He plans to bind 10 copies and present them to family members at Christmas.
Next, he aims to research his family's genealogy.
"I've got so many projects like that I want to do and I'm running out of time," Brande said.
That's the type of interest that leaders at the Del Norte Senior Center want to jumpstart in local older residents and they expect the four new computers that they installed over Easter weekend to help.
The two-year-old Dell computers with 17-inch monitors came from Redding resident Jim Ballard's Toyon-Wintu Recycling Project.
Ballard started the nonprofit just over a year ago, partnering with the Wintu Tribe to collect old computers, clear their data, refurbish them with new software and deliver them to residents, nonprofits, schools and others in Northern California.
"Technology opens up the world to people who don't otherwise have that access the disabled, the elderly, the solitary, the lonely," Ballard said. "A computer with Internet access opens up the world to everyone."
The 49-year-old understands those benefits.
A network engineer and technician for various companies in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, Ballard eventually ran his own business before retiring in 2001.
But three years later, he got a diagnosis to the health problems that he had been suffering: progressive relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis, a form of the disease that gradually deteriorates nerves and blocks signals from the brain to the body.
"I made it to the top and this disease took it all away from me," Ballard said.
He started researching his own condition, then set up a technology network to compensate for his flailing abilities days when he can't move at all, for instance.
In his Redding home, he can activate programs, answer e-mail and input data to spreadsheets on his three flatscreen computers by voice, dictating through a phone and headset.
Others who face physical and mental disabilities or addictions or who care for family members with those problems can also find help through the Internet, with access to information, support groups and other material.
"They can move forward, they can grow with their disability," Ballard said.
But only if they can get computers and learn to use them.
"We want to get these computers back in the hands of peo-ple that need 'em, not see 'em be destroyed," Ballard said of his program's goal. "This is the last thing I'm leaving behind and it's something good."
Center Director Cyndie Brande and center volunteer Miriam Felt, a computer class teacher, have talked about ideas for the new computers maybe building a website to post interviews with local senior citizens, or hosting a new web page design class.
"It'll pull them into computers," said Brande, who has drawn center members before by informing them of their unclaimed property and bank accounts that they can find online.
But Felt understands why older local citizens doubt their abilities.
"People are afraid that they can't learn as they grow older," Felt said. "I'm here to say it's not true."
Felt graduated cum laude at age 65 with a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies anthropology, linguistics and theology, among others. It followed the engineering degree that she earned in her 40s.
"Not only did I do better, but I was able to understand things in a different way," Felt said.
The Toyon-Wintu Recycling Project charges no disposal fee for computers, offers tax deductions on donations and can issue certificates proving security after clearing materials from computers.
For more information, visit www.wintutribe.org.