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September 1, 2005 - "Connecting the Troops to Their Families" by Nicole Lewis
The Chronicle of Philanthropy Website

A poem tacked to a wall in a room at the North Riverside Armory, in Illinois, pushed Dan Shannon to change jobs and spend $20,000 of his own money to start a charity that helps military families stay in touch.

The poem, "I Got Your Back," was written by the wife of a deployed service member and opens with the lines: "I am a small and precious child, my Dad's been sent to fight/The only place I'll see his face is in my dreams at night."

"By the time I had finished reading that poem, I knew this was something I had to do," says Mr. Shannon, 45, a commercial real-estate manager and father of four who never served in the armed forces.

Three years ago, Mr. Shannon visited the armory to talk about an idea he had. He wanted to solicit used computers, refurbish them, and give them to the families of low-paid enlisted military personnel, to help them communicate easily during times of separation.

News reports of more and more National Guard members having to leave their families -- and often taking a pay cut from their civilian jobs to serve overseas -- spurred Mr. Shannon to wonder how he could help the people left behind.

"The image I had was a wife up in the middle of the night with two sick little kids and their pay has just been cut in half," he says. "At the same time, the company I was working for had 10 computers in the basement."

The image, along with the poem, propelled Mr. Shannon to form Operation Homelink, a charity that provides free refurbished computers to parents or spouses of deployed service members with modest salaries.

Low Maintenance

After seeking advice about starting his group from officials at Operation Homefront, a California charity that also distributes used computers to military families, Mr. Shannon began seeking computer donations from the public. But he received too many poor-quality and old units that were not worth refurbishing.

He switched to writing letters to Fortune 500 companies, requesting a minimum donation of 25 used computers with specific technical specifications. Redemtec, a company in Columbus, Ohio, supplied the first 100 units, which were already refurbished.

Refurbishing involves wiping the hard drives clean and installing new operating systems, which Microsoft donates to the charity as part of a program that helps charities that recycle computers for other uses. To pay for the service, Mr. Shannon sometimes gets donors' permission to sell nearly new donated computers. The proceeds pay for the refurbishing of the older units and also enables him to purchase additional used computers. The group receives free modems for its computers from U.S. Robotics, a technology company in Schaumburg, IL.

The low-maintenance and break-even approach works for Mr. Shannon, who discovered that, while he didn't mind asking corporations for computers, he didn't like asking people for money. Instead, he paid for his own travel and lodging to computer-distribution events, as well as software for a donation-tracking system, out of his own pocket.

His burden has eased in the past six months since Southwest Airlines agreed to donate four free roundtrips to help the charity do its work. A large Chicago law firm, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, also helps the group with free legal advice.

Since its founding, Operation Homelink has taken in about $400,000 in cash and donations of computers and technical services. Northrop Grumman Corporation, the defense company in Los Angeles, has donated 200 computers and expects that number to rise, says Sandra Evers-Manley, a company vice president who oversees its charitable donations. "We think the mission is critical," she says of the charity's work. "We liked the fact that this allows communication and instant contact with family members."

Avoiding False Hopes

Mr. Shannon eventually quit his job to start his own commercial real-estate management business, Aspire Properties, when it became clear that he needed a more flexible work schedule to run his charity. He now keeps two phones on his desk, one for business and one for Operation Homelink.

Mr. Shannon has made changes in his organization as he learns more about what works best. Initially, families could sign up to get a computer on the charity's Web site, but it made Mr. Shannon anxious to have a long waiting list when he didn't know when the next shipment of donations would come.

"I didn't want them to have these false hopes of wanting to get a computer and our not being able to deliver it in a timely manner," he says.

Now, the corporation donating the goods has the option to designate the geographic area or specific military unit that the gift will benefit. Mr. Shannon works with a local USO office or another organization, such as the family-support groups on military bases, to determine recipients.

Last year the Dell computer company. in Austin, Tex., donated 100 computers to Operation Homelink and arranged to have the gift benefit military families at Fort Hood, in Killeen, Tex., an army base near its headquarters.

"We decided to work with Homelink because their philosophy matches ours in that we have a very strong belief that no computer should go to waste," says Karen Bruett, director of education and community initiatives at the company. Another reason, she says, is "the military is a very strong customer of Dell's."

Operation Homelink has distributed 825 computers so far, and Mr. Shannon has no plans to close the group, even if the war in Iraq ends. He says the group's computers are meant for the families of service members posted anywhere overseas, not just the Middle East, and the stresses on separated military families are the same no matter what the deployment.

"We owe these people a tremendous amount of gratitude," he says of military personnel. "If we can all do a little bit to make their lives easier, that's a good thing to do."

Operation Homelink | 25 East Washington, Suite 1501, Chicago, IL 60602 Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved.
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