On the Job: Helping People Stay Connected

Paul Adams founded Adaptive Computer Empowerment Services in 1995, and today the Santee non-profit provides refurbished computers for low-income disabled and senior county residents.

Paul Adams studied electronic engineering in college and always has been intrigued by computers and how they work.

Once computers became a part of modern, everyday life, he found he couldn’t keep his hands off them.

“I have an affinity for the silly boxes,” he says, smiling.

Which has been a good thing for him and thousands of others in San Diego County.

Adams, 69, is the president and CEO of Adaptive Computer Empowerment Services in Santee, an , then provides them for low-income men and women with disabilities or low-income seniors (age 65 and older).

In a good year, ACES will distribute more than 400 desktop computers to those who need them.

Though his title sounds impressive, Adams just waves it off with a smile.

“I’m chief cook and bottle washer,” he says, noting that he and every other person at ACES don’t get a dime. He also shrugs off any credit that’s tossed in his direction.

“It’s the volunteers who make this work,” he says. “They’re very dedicated to doing this. Volunteerism is a wonderful thing.”

About 15 volunteers do a variety of tasks at the 2,000-square foot bare-bones suite located in a business park off Prospect Avenue. ACES, which began in 1995, has been in the same location for six or seven years.

On a recent weekday morning, three volunteers worked at desks refurbishing computers. Monitors, keyboards and every imaginable part of them were stacked, packed and gathered over shelves, on the floor and along the walls of the facility.

Six days a week, Adams, too is sitting at his desk, alongside the other volunteers, upgrading donated machines.

“I can’t keep my fingers out of them,” he says.

A varied background

Adams says he’s had “several professions” in his life since graduating from what was then San Diego State College.

He worked in jobs in the electronics field and then became a professional photographer with his own studio, shooting weddings and portraits for about nine years. But once personal computers came along – he started using them when he had his photography business – that became his calling. He stepped into that field and eventually became a computer network administrator for Xybion Electronics in San Diego in the early 1990s.

After leaving that company, he and a friend started Adaptive Computer Empowerment Services in 1995, with the idea they’d help people with disabilities be empowered through computers.

“Our goal was to try to provide low-cost computers for low-income disabled,” Adams says. “And we went along with low-income disabled for quite a while until about three years ago, and we decided we’d open it to low-income seniors as well. There’s a growing population of seniors – being in that population myself – and they really need to be able to have access to computers to be able to continue to communicate with their grandkids, all the things that we take for granted with the Internet.”

ACES started out of a garage, then evolved and moved to several locations in the county before landing in Santee, where Adams lives. Along the way, Adams’ partner left and ACES went from providing just a handful of computers a year to more than 400.

The operation relies on donations of computers – it’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit -- from businesses when they upgrade their systems, or individuals. Costco and Websense, for instance, have been regular contributors. ACES takes keyboards, monitors, the computer and mice, but not printers.

Most of the computers ACES refurbishes are a generation or two behind the cutting-edge machines, about five years old or more.

ACES does charge a fee for each computer, just to cover costs “to keep the doors open.” Recipients pay $75 for a computer with an old-style monitor or $150 for a flat-screen monitor.

The only stipulations for receiving a computer are that the person must be a county resident, qualify for low-income status (less than $1,000 per month) or be 65 or older or have a verifiable physical disability.

ACES also works with several agencies and non-profit organizations, such as the San Diego Futures Foundation and Nice Guys of San Diego and the California Department of Rehabilitation (for which some computers go to residents of El Centro or Temecula).

It’s ‘somewhat consuming’

Aside from working with ACES, Adams – who’s married with three adult children -- says he doesn’t do much else.

“This is somewhat consuming,” says Adams, who essentially is retired but has done computer consulting work on the side. “I really don’t have a burning desire to do much of anything else. I stay low-key.”

But ACES does provide him with certain intangibles that mean a lot to him.

For one thing, he likes working with the volunteers. He says an “excellent side benefit” for their service is they get hands-on, practical experience working on computers, which often has allowed them to achieve certifications that allow them to work in the industry.

“It’s very tactile,” says Adams. “You don’t get that out of a book.”

The other benefit is hearing from those who get the computers about what they mean to them.

“I feel very good about what we do,” he says. “It’s a rush when someone says, ‘Thank you. You changed my life.’ ”

He knows especially that the computers have been used when the recipients contact ACES several years later to ask if they can get an upgraded, faster and more capable machine.

“That means they’ve taken what we’ve given them and are using it,” he says.

Not everything about computers is peachy, however. The “silly boxes” have minds of their own.

“They do exactly what I tell them to do,” says Adams. “That’s what I hate about them.”


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