To be honest, it was mostly junk.
Computers with parts missing or computers at least eight years old, which is like an athlete wearing a leather helmet in the Super Bowl.
The room held a few tables and some metal chairs and it was dark and dusty.
That’s what Ryan Fernandes and Caroline Sieger saw when they walked into a third floor room at Triune Mercy Center for the first time in the fall of 2009. They were Clemson grad students then, he in the business school, she in math. They had been dating about a year.
The Clemson MBA program matched Fernandes with Triune, the Rutherford Road ministry that offers services for the homeless.
“Clemson has a unique philanthropy view,” he said.
Fernandes met with Deb Richardson Moore, the pastor, and Pat Parker, the center’s associate director and employment specialist, and together they decided to take that dismal room and make it into a computer lab.
“There are cell phones faster than the computers in there,” Fernandes said. “We had to make the best of what we had.”
Their challenge was similar to a chef who is given disparate ingredients to cook something edible.
They took the oldest computers and reconfigured them for browsing the web only. They worked well enough for Triune clients to look for jobs.
They parlayed Clemson contacts into newer computers – or as Fernandes puts it “all in one machines” that could be used for typing lessons and classes in learning software such as Word or Excel.
But it didn’t end there. Fernandes and Sieger bought lighting from Ikea. His parents, Jackie and Agnelo Fernandes, who live in Greenville, donated a rug. And purple computer chairs came from the Clemson MBA program.
Fernandes and Sieger attended the first class taught there, which was in March. The clients described being able to have ready access to computers and the opportunity to take classes as life changing.
“Not knowing how to turn on a computer or have an e-mail address, I never realized how important it is,” Fernandes said. “The room serves as a safe place for them to learn without having to go to the library and be asked to leave because they fell asleep.”
Moore said so far 45 people have had one-on-one training.
“The key is that a lot of our folks have failed in other computer programs or other job-seeking programs where they’re shown to a computer and left on their own,” she said.
She said Triune offers a lot of emergency relief such as hot meals, groceries, clothes, blankets, coats and laundry services. But the computer room offers something lasting. It helps people get out of the situation they’re in.
For Fernandes, it was an opportunity to give back to the community he grew up in. He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School, where is played soccer, and then majored in biochemistry at Clemson before getting his master’s in business. Sieger grew up in Charleston and has a bachelor’s and master’s in math.
They’re living in Boston now. She’s working for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Lab developing collision avoidance algorithms for the Air Force and the FAA, and he’s doing an internship Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
Fernandes said working together on the computer lab deepened their relationship. In April, he took her to the top of the Clemson House and asked her to marry him. Their wedding is planned for Dec. 29 at Divine Redeemer Catholic Church in Hanahan, outside of Charleston.
Their wedding registry is a short one.
They’ve asked all their guests to donate what they would have spent on a wedding present to Triune Mercy Center.
“Yeah, we need things for the household, but how much do you really need when you put things in context? Fernandes said.