Tech recycler finds way to Danville

DANVILLE – A St. Louis nonprofit business known for recycling and refurbishing computers is expanding in Danville, all because its president is directionally challenged.

Angela Haas, who started WITS (Web Innovations and Technology Services) in 2002, was supposed to view a couple of potential expansion sites in Newman but somehow missed a turn and ended up in Danville. Instead of turning around, she decided to check into whether Danville had any vacant buildings that met her needs – in other words, anything cheap.

She lucked out by meeting Realtor Wes Burress. Once he learned she ran a nonprofit, he offered to donate two of his properties – the old Esco plant at 1017 Griggs St. and the old Eagle grocery store at 1507 N. Bowman Ave.

Since taking title to the long-vacant buildings on June 1, Haas has been cleaning up the Griggs Street property, where she'll collect the electronics and other recyclables. She also plans to train locals – particularly at-risk youths and low-income residents – to rebuild and repair computers, and offer free computer access and classes there.

"My goal is to turn this into a full community technology center," said Haas, who hopes to open by the end of August. "It will be a one-stop shop."

WITS collects all types of donated materials, from electronics and appliances to paper, plastic and clothing. It takes the used and often obsolete computer systems, rebuilds them, then donates them to people who otherwise couldn't afford a computer. (The hard drives are cleaned to Department of Defense standards. What can't be used is demanufactured and recycled like the other materials, which is how the firm makes its money.)

"It's been said that we not only recycle electronics, but we're also recycling lives," Haas said, adding recipients can use the technology to accomplish their education and/or career goals.

Haas, a St. Louis native, developed the model for WITS while she was a graduate student at St. Louis University; at that point in time, she was on a path to getting a medical degree and working in neurophysiological psychology. While serving on a technology committee, she suggested refurbishing old computers the school was replacing and selling them to students.

"Why throw them away when students are desperate for this stuff? You have to pay to haul them away, so this will save you money," Haas said, recalling how she sold university officials on the idea.

Haas – who learned to fix computers because the school's were old and always breaking down, she said – helped rebuild them. When she notified students the computers would be available, "within two days, I had 175 responses begging me to save them a computer," she said, adding systems were sold for $50 to $100.

But when Haas also suggested that the university start a regular refurbishing program and train technology students to help out, giving them hands-on experience, officials balked, she said. So she decided to start her own firm and do that.

"I'm a Taurus, and Tauruses are very bullheaded. I said, 'I'll show them this can be done,' and five years later, we're a company," she said.

WITS grew by word-of-mouth. In its first year, the firm collected and recycled 175 tons of materials. That increased to a half million in 2004, 1 1/2 million in 2005 and 3 million in 2006.

Today WITS is fully self-supporting, with 1,500 to 2,000 donor clients including schools, businesses, community groups and individuals in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

It has given rebuilt equipment to about 5,500 low-income families, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities a year in recent years, and has trained at least 200 people, including many at-risk youth, to rebuild them. Once trained, people can go on to serve as program mentors.

Now Haas said she's ready to do that in Danville. She's looking for volunteers to help finish readying the Griggs Street site and to help get the word out that she's here.

Vermilion County recycling coordinator Lynn Wolgamot believes WITS will be an asset to the area.

"People call me and say, 'I've got these computers. What can I do with them?'" said Wolgamot, who tells them to take them to Champaign. "We do not have a business that's able to take in massive amounts of materials and store them or have trucks to go pick them up. ... People will recycle, if it's convenient."

Signups for WITS' free computer program will be held Aug. 11 at the Danville Public Library at 319 N. Vermilion St. and the Village Mall at 2917 N. Vermilion St.

For information, call 442-9487.



Acceptable items

WITS (Web Innovations and Technology Services), which is opening in the old Esco plant at 1017 Griggs St. at the end of August and later in the old Eagle grocery store at 1507 N. Bowman Ave., will take the following items:

Computers, monitors, printers, cables and peripherals.

Networking equipment, servers, phones, cell phones, clocks.

TVs, VCRs, stereos, audio and video equipment.

Home electronics, blenders, toasters, irons, hair dryers.

CDs and DVDs, VHS and cassette tapes and all computer software.

Industrial machinery and equipment.

Lawn equipment, tools, old mowers and tillers.

Air conditioners, refrigerators, humidifiers and other items containing freon.

Old motors, transformers and electrical equipment.

Car batteries, screen doors, clothing and paper, plastic and wood items. (Paper, plastic and clothing will be accepted at the North Bowman site only.)

Drop-off fees are $5 for all monitors and appliances from businesses and individuals, and $3 apiece for nonprofits. Televisions are $10 apiece.

WITS is a nonprofit organization, so donations are tax-deductible.

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