Fairfax volunteers offer free tech advice

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Rebekah Sewell

Fairfax county resident and avid music fan Bill Behnke, 69, was having some iPod issues. His son-in-law had set him up with the popular “Internet radio” station Pandora, which can be listened to on multiple digital devices, including computers, smartphones and tablets. But he couldn’t get it to play in his car.

Unlike traditional radio, Pandora allows users to select the particular songs they want to hear through a customized “playlist.” Behnke was a big fan of the radio app, and he often listened to his playlists from his apartment at Harbor House in Herndon, Va. There he has access to his building’s wireless Internet, also known as Wi-Fi, which allowed him to play Pandora on his computer and his iPod touch.

But Behnke couldn’t find a way to play Pandora on his iPod while in the car. Since iPods can access the Internet, he didn’t understand why it wouldn’t play there.

Behnke took his question to the staff at the nearby Herdon Senior Center, who tried to help but didn’t know how to solve his problem.

Free help available

But that didn’t mean they gave up. The center referred him to a program called Fairfax IT On Call (IT stands for “information technology”). The program began last May, and matches residents who have technology-related questions with local tech-savvy experts.

All the work is done by volunteers, and the program is overseen and managed by Fairfax Volunteer Solutions. The program deals with a wide range of technological issues, and the volunteers possess varying types and levels of skills.

To qualify as a volunteer, Volunteer Solutions requires a thorough application and background check. It reviews the candidates’ references as well.

What makes the system effective is the program’s flexibility. Tom Rose has been working with the program since last summer, and he works on a couple of cases per month. Volunteers are not required to commit to a minimum number of cases or hours, and they also only take the cases that match their expertise.

Rose was recruited for the position by Carol Moran, the process manager at Volunteer Solutions. His experience in the IT field spans over 30 years. As a data center manager, he has to be familiar with the latest technology, and Moran felt he would be a good fit for the program.

Like the other volunteers, Rose only assists on the cases for which he feels qualified. “Thankfully, when a client request gets sent around, you have a good description of the issue.

“If it’s something I can handle, I throw my name in the ring. If not, I wouldn’t burden them with me just trying to make their problem worse,” he joked.

It was Rose who assisted Behnke with his Pandora issue and resolved it. He received the description of the problem and contacted Behnke directly, only a few days after the request had been submitted. They then scheduled an appointment in Behnke’s home.

“What I was so impressed with right from the get-go was that he volunteered to come out on a Saturday morning, and I thought that’s really something. He’s using his own personal time to come and help me,” Behnke said.

“I found out later that he has a full-time job during the week. He’s not retired like I am. He was willing to forfeit his weekend free time to come out and help me.”

Though Rose was asked to join the volunteer program, he committed to it because “it sounded like a great way to meet people. It always feels good to help,” he said.

Tutorials for software and devices

Most of Rose’s volunteer work consists of providing tutorials. “I enjoy the how-to type of questions such as, ‘how do I use a piece of software?’ ‘I just got an iPad, and I want to learn what it can do,’ and ‘I need help with my printer,’” he said.

After discussing Behnke’s problem, Rose realized the iPod wasn’t playing Pandora in the car because it had no source of Internet. To illustrate the issue, he showed Behnke that his iPod was losing the connection to his apartment’s Wi-Fi when he walked outside.

Then, using his own smartphone, he showed Behnke how such a cell phone could be used as an Internet hub that enabled his iPod to play Pandora in the car. The problem was, Behnke didn’t have such a cell phone!

“He asked me what kind of a cell phone I have. My cell phone is an antique. It’s a flip phone. It’s not a smartphone at all,” Behnke laughed. “And then he said, ‘Your cell phone will not access Wi-Fi.’”

Behnke realized he would have to replace his phone with a smartphone and purchase mobile data (a monthly plan to provides Internet access for his phone) in order to access the Internet in his car. The cost would run him an extra $30 per month and at least $250 upfront to replace the phone, which didn’t seem feasible.

All in all though, Behnke was satisfied that he’d explored the problem thoroughly. “He helped me with what I was trying to accomplish, and helped me determine that it was going to be pretty expensive to make it work,” he said.

Connecting with social media

Another client Rose got to know well was his first one — 93-year-old Millie. She had lost touch with many of her acquaintances and even family members.

Rose decided to sign her up for the social networking site Facebook. Within the hour, they had created her personal profile and begun to “friend” people she once knew.

“It was neat showing her that and how quickly we could — all the sudden — find people she hadn’t seen in 50 years,” said Rose. “We connected with someone she went to high school with!”

That experience convinced Rose he was going to like this volunteer position. “I’ve really enjoyed meeting everybody so far. I’m really impressed just hearing their story. After meeting Millie, I was hooked.”

Making friends and hearing about their lives is rewarding for Rose. “The types of issues we handle can be done within an hour. Sometimes it takes a little longer, [but] sometimes it’s just because we’re chatting,” he laughed. “I’ve always had a good feeling every time I’ve left a new friend.”

For more information about Fairfax IT On Call, or to apply to volunteer, contact Carol Moran at Carol.Moran@fairfaxcounty.gov or (703) 324-5410.