Local boy partners with IU Surplus to give teens in foster care access to technology

By the age of 10, Toby Thomassen had built his first 3-D printer and exhibited it at Bloominglab's Makevention, a convention for crafters, inventors, artists and engineers. As a student at University Elementary School, he provided tech support to his teachers and administrators. By the time he graduated the fifth grade, he had acquired parts for and assembled his own computer.

Now as a seventh-grader at Jackson Creek Middle School, Thomassen is partnering with Indiana University Surplus Stores and Monroe County Court Appointed Special Advocates to share his passion for technology with peers who do not have access to it.

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Twelve-year-old Toby Thomassen fixes non-working IU Surplus laptops and gives them to teens in Monroe County's CASA program. Photo by Chris Meyer, IU Communications

After ensuring the hard drives have been wiped cleaned of any data, IU Surplus sells any non-working laptops it receives from campus offices or departments to Thomassen at e-waste market scrap prices. He then cleans the laptops using alcohol and compressed air, fixes hardware issues, sets up administrator accounts and downloads software to each computer. When the laptops are in pristine condition, he hands them off, along with a user's manual he crafted himself, to CASA to place in the hands of teens living in foster care.

The inspiration for this arrangement came from a school project. Thomassen and his classmates were required to research a real-world problem of their choosing, and he chose e-waste. After conducting interviews and reading countless articles, Thomassen realized just how big of a problem e-waste is and was compelled to find a creative way to repurpose technology.

When he shared his idea to refurbish used laptops to give to underserved teens, his teacher suggested he reach out to CASA about working with teens in foster care.

Refurbishing the laptops proved to be no problem for Thomassen. He had been helping his friends update software on their computers for years, reading online forums, googling questions and watching YouTube videos whenever he hit a roadblock. Thomassen said part of his motivation to teach himself these skills stemmed from curiosity, but most of it was fueled by frustration.

"I just got annoyed that stuff didn't work, so I figured out how to fix it," he said.

The challenge was considering how living in foster care would affect the way teens used the technology. Luckily, Thomassen said, CASA representatives advised him on how to better serve these teens. They suggested using free software instead of a CASA-owned license to other software so the teens could have true ownership of their machines. They also stressed the importance of login security for teens in the unlikely event that a home placement becomes unwelcoming.

From the top: Toby Thomassen, left, gathers used laptops with help from IU Surplus employee Tim Deckard; Thomassen transports a new shipment of used laptops from IU Surplus to his mom's van; Thomassen loads computers to clean and repair before donating to teens in foster care. Photos by Chris Meyer, IU Communications

Just as CASA is the perfect partner to receive the laptops, Thomassen said IU Surplus is the perfect supplier. IU's technology replacement program for departments, buildings and offices keeps IU on the cutting-edge of research and teaching and generates a steady stream of computer equipment to IU Surplus. This provides the consistency and quality the project needed that other e-waste recyclers in the area could not provide.

Store manager Todd Reid said the partnership with Thomassen was a no-brainer for IU Surplus as well. He said that while IU has an efficient and successful e-waste program, it is always the preference of IU Surplus and the university to repurpose items when possible instead of recycling. Not to mention, Thomassen's cause is close to Reid's heart.

"I retired from law enforcement and was a DARE officer for years, so I have seen first-hand what displacement does to children," Reid said. "The nicest young man showed up in my office and presented his program with a plan already in place. I was just in awe with not only his personality, but how genuine he was about the cause. I had to be a part of it."

Thomassen's mom, Lisa, who is a senior lecturer in the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said his generous behavior is nothing new. He has participated in the department's STEM outreach efforts and has been helping people for most of his life.

"Even from a young age Toby had a keen and innate sense of social injustice," she said. "When he sees something unfair, he always tries to do what he can to help correct it."

Thomassen said he wants to correct injustices and level the tech playing field for as many teens as possible by expanding his program to CASA in surrounding counties and, eventually, surrounding states.

"Now, even more than in previous years, technology is such an essential part of school and everything really," he said. "It is extremely helpful to have technology to learn new things, or even if you're having a bad day to go on YouTube and watch funny videos."

To do that, though, he said he will need the support of e-waste recyclers beyond IU Surplus or corporate partners that are willing to donate funds or labor.

IU Surplus stores will also be accepting non-IU machines for Thomassen's project. Any 2015 or newer laptop with at least a Core i3 processor and 4 gigabytes of RAM can be donated at IU Surplus, 2931 E. 10 St.