Interview with Michelle and Michael Hall from Qimo for Kids

We met Michelle and Michael Hall at the LINUX SCALE-7 convention, and were impressed by their enthusiasm and their willingness to join our project to help kids get on computers. Their nonprofit, Qimo for Kids, provides free computers to kids with special needs.

You give computers to kids with special needs. How have the kids reacted to the computers?

The kids *LOVE* their computers.  And you know, they don’t care that they’re not Windows computers. They don’t care that they’re not brand new, top of the line.  All the kids care is that “Wow, I have MY OWN computer.”

How’d you come up with the idea?

The idea for Qimo came to us because of our son.  He wanted a computer, but he couldn’t focus on a traditional multi-windowed desktop.  So, we stripped out as much confusion as we could for him.  We then shared it with a number of children, all of whom responded very well.  Mike suggested we recycle computers into the community on a more regular basis, and I said “OK.  Let’s start a nonprofit.” And it snowballed from there.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and why you got started doing this?

We started dating as sophomores in high school; dated for 6 years before we married.  Mike has an AS in Computer Science, specializing in Network Engineering and I have a BA in English Lit.  We married in 2003, and about 6 months after we married  we found out that we were going to have a son, Quinn.    Never in all those years did we ever guess that we’d have one child with an autism spectrum disorder, and a second child who is suspected to have a disorder on the spectrum as well.  But, that’s what we were given; we live and learn how to adapt every day.  Quinn has been diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD/NOS).  Both children are suspected to have Asperger’s Syndrome, but are too young for diagnosis.  Quinn is almost 5, and Ainsley is 3 1/2.  Mike is currently working for the St. Pete Times, and I’m a SAHM, running after kids.  We’re plugging along, making the best of each day.

Can you tell us a little bit more about what you are doing?

We have a two-fold project going on.  Qimo, the software side, is an OS designed for early elementary school aged children.  It’s a pretty straightforward idea, a customized version of Xubuntu, designed to be visually appealing, but not overwhelming, for kids.  The hardware side of things is a bit more complicated though.  We run a nonprofit out of our home, recycling old community-donated hardware, refurbishing it into working systems, and presenting it to children in our community.  We focus on special needs kids (kids with developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, etc.) and at-risk kids (low income, high risk families).

You said the kids love the computers, how do the parents react?

Parents have been a little apprehensive, but understandably so.  Many of our computers have been placed on the referral of a child’s teacher, and not because of the parents, so they’ve been a little shy of *why* their kids are getting computers.  But after talking with them, and when they see their children immediately take to the computer, the parents come around.

You ended up creating your own software. Can you tell us a bit about what you chose and why?

We’ve got an Xubuntu variant, chosen because of its lightweight nature.  Our game selections are in response, essentially, to what OUR kids like.  If our son or daughter took to a particular game, we included it.  When we saw that the kids hated one, we didn’t include it.  Also, we have our own feelings for the games; we wanted them to have some educational value. Generally, we had no issue with considering almost anything.

Do you offer training to the kids or do they just seem to pick it up?

The kids are surprisingly capable of figuring things out by themselves and the learning curve is not steep at all.  We do a two-or-three minute crash course, and by the time I get to the end of that, some kids look at me like they can’t wait for me to hush and go away, so they can play.  We do offer a more detailed training for parents, though.

How’s demand going? Do you have a long list of kids?

We’ve got a fairly hefty list of kids. But, then again, we’re just the two of us, running this out of our house, so any list is a hefty one.  Right now, we’ve got about 20 kids on a wait-list.

What’s been the community response to your project?

It’s been surprisingly positive, particularly in terms of incoming donations.  We don’t have great e-waste regulations where we are so a large number of computers are just sitting in closets, bedrooms, etc., folks just don’t want to throw them out.  Just *asking* for donations has resulted in a huge number of donations.

What has surprised you about the project?

How quickly this has grown.  It seems like essentially overnight, and we’re getting e-mails from people in Argentina, the Netherlands, and Italy, all asking to help set up projects like ours in their communities.  It’s been incredible.

Do you have any advice you’d like to give to others looking to do the same?

GO FOR IT!  It’s not hard; it’s not particularly time consuming, and the rewards are delightful.  Just a computer a month can really accomplish something in one’s community.

What can our readers do to help?

Reach out, and get started in your own community.  We welcome donations of both hardware and money, of course, but would be equally thrilled to know that there are multiple small organizations of people doing this within their own communities.  Talk to people, pass the word along.  We’d *love* to see QuinnCo “Affiliates” across the nation, and around the world, changing the lives of children one computer at a time.

Thanks, Michelle and Michael!

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