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Substation 33 bridges digital divide in Logan by delivering electronics to people in need during pandemic

By Edwina Seselja, ABC Radio Brisbane | November 10 2020

It has been the year we focused on distance — 1.5 metres to be exact — and as much of the world was forced to work and study from home, the digital divide has become even more pronounced.

The divide between communities with access to essential electronics, such as laptops and computers, and those without access did not go unnoticed by Logan-based social enterprise Substation 33.

“When COVID became a thing in Logan, we saw a really quick and significant need, and that was bridging the digital divide in Logan,” Substation 33 founder Tony Sharp said.

Substation 33 is a social enterprise of YFS — a not-for-profit organisation that helps vulnerable people in Logan and the surrounding area south of Brisbane to overcome adversity.

“Our primary role in the world is collecting and processing electronic waste and supporting people who are marginalised from mainstream employment to get skills and work towards an employment outcome at the end,” Mr Sharp said.

Making old new again

From a large industrial shed in Kingston, in Logan, a team of volunteers and employees sort through, repair and redistribute donated electronic waste.

“[During the pandemic] people were giving us better-quality gear, yet kids were sent home from school to study … but they had no device to study at home,” Mr Sharp said.

“We were able to build a program where we were getting members of the community to build computers with the electronic waste that we got donated.

“Then we pushed those into family homes so that the young people could then get on and study their online course.”

Families were sold a desktop computer, keyboard, cables, mouse and wi-fi dongle for $100.

Mr Sharp said while many school students in Logan had mobile phones and tablets, most did not have access to a computer at home.

He said he and his team had delivered 1,000 computers to families in need since April.

‘Great opportunity for self-improvement’

Hunter Cumming, 31, was one of the people who helped build the computers.

“I build computers to sell to people who are in need, particularly kids that are in school or people that are in low-income areas that need a computer at home,” he said.

“People who have been locked at home during quarantine and have been isolated from their families.”

The former cattle farmer came to Substation 33 while working as part of the Work for the Dole Program, after an accident in 2018 left him with back and nerve damage.

“I got injured by getting hit by a bull and because of that injury, I moved back to Brisbane and tried to look for work,” Mr Cumming said.

Restricted by his injury, he struggled to find work until he started coming along to Substation 33.

“After a while I came to really like it and wanted to do more, so I asked for a job and Tony … decided to take me on,” he said.

“Substation has been a great opportunity for me for self-improvement.

“It’s given me all sorts of opportunities in terms of the work itself. I’ve been learning all sorts of news skills including sales, trade, administration, management of people and obviously IT skills.”

‘Proud to be part of Substation family’

Mr Sharp started the social enterprise nine years ago and in that time it has seen enormous growth.

“I had no idea what it would look like when we started nine years ago and I probably don’t know what it will look like next year really,” he said.

“The big project that we’ve done is the digital divide in Logan. We only started in April and we’ve already delivered 1,000 computers.

“So, what can that do in the [next] few years, I’m not sure.”

Substation 33 has been nominated for the ABC Radio Brisbane Community Spirit Awards.

Mr Sharp is joined by three other finalists in the category for Community Project or Event: Alastair Tomkins for his Music for Mateship initiative, The Common Good for its Strawberry Sundae Appeal, and the Australian International Islamic College for providing “contactless Iftar” during Ramadan.

Mr Sharp said being nominated for the award was as much a part of his personal growth as it was for the members.

“They feel proud to be part of Substation and part of the Substation family.”