ANNAPOLIS – When Baltimore resident Julie Smith got the call that her daughter, Lindsay Smith, would receive a free computer, she did not believe it was true.
“I said, ‘No, you’re kidding me,'” Julie Smith said. “I was like, ‘This can’t be true.'”
But about a week later, the Smith family had a computer in their home for 16-year-old Lindsay, who has cerebral palsy.
The computer came from The Buddy Project, a non-profit group that gives refurbished computers to people with disabilities.
Frederick resident Eric Zimmerman founded the group in October 2007. Zimmerman had worked for Best Buddies International, which matches people with special needs to a volunteer as a way to form a friendship between the two.
Zimmerman, who has Asperger’s, a form of autism, was placed into Best Buddies and later found a job doing data entry for them.
Zimmerman began to notice that many people with disabilities did not have an email address, so, in September 2007, he decided to start an organization to help them have access to their own computer and email address.
“A lot of the people with special needs’ families won’t let them use their computer because they’re scared they’ll delete a file, so they don’t learn how to use a computer,” Zimmerman said.
In December, Zimmerman was laid off from Best Buddies, due to funding issues, just as The Buddy Project began to take off.
Now, Zimmerman is the sole employee and chairman of The Buddy Project, along with eight board members. He lives off of his disability check, which he also uses for some of the funding for the organization.
The Buddy Project receives donated computers from companies with a surplus, local governments and individuals. Zimmerman stores them and works on them at his house before delivering them to people.
Recipients of the computers first fill out an application they receive from one of several advocacy groups for people with disabilities.
After Zimmerman receives the application, he places the individual on a waiting list. The list has about 96 people and amounts to a four-month wait.
The Buddy Project distributed its first computer in February and has since given out approximately 30 computers. The group also promises another computer for recipients every two years.
The Smith family received an application in the mail this summer.
Julie Smith filled out the application after calling Zimmerman to see if it was a hoax. Her daughter, Lindsay, received a computer a few weeks later.
Lindsay uses her computer to play games, like a bowling one with polar bears. She sits in her pink outfit with pink shoes and uses the computer mouse to play.
When Lindsay gets a strike, her mother cheers. Julie Smith is also grateful that Lindsay has a fun activity to do at home.
“It gives her something else to do other than sitting around and watching videos,” Julie Smith said. “Since she can’t get outside and play, this gives her more to do.”
When Lindsay’s computer was not working once, Zimmerman came out to fix it the next day.
Because Zimmerman does the work by himself and uses his own money to pick up and deliver the computers, his goal is to earn more funding for the group.
The Buddy Project will hold a cake auction in Zimmerman’s home Friday. The Freddie Long Band will perform.
The goal is to raise money to purchase more computers, pay for Zimmerman’s gas and allow the group to be tax-exempt and have a tax identification number for donors. The goal for the cake auction is to raise $3,000.
In the future, Zimmerman hopes to start a computer training program for people with disabilities. He also hopes to have an email system.
For now, the first step is funding.
“It’s really taking off,” Zimmerman said. “There’s a need there.”