Blaine Deatherage-Newsom, Free Geek, and why some virtual communities are very real
January 2nd, 2009

The notion that online social relationships should be dismissed as somehow “less real” than face-to-face relationships — or “real community,” whatever that means — is an old one. It’s a good question to ask, and all online information should be critically examined, including online relationships. But when people dismiss the possibility that for some people, the online world is not just real, but a lifeline, I think of Blaine Deatherage-Newsom. I still answer email from students, as I did more than a decade ago. In 1996, I was asked a few survey questions by a student who wanted to know if I would consider aborting a pregnancy if it could be determined in advance that the baby would have spina bifida. A few weeks later, when I heard back from Blaine about the results of his survey, I wrote “For Some, The Net Is a Lifeline” in a newspaper-syndicated column that I put online by myself.

A few weeks ago, twelve years after that column, I smiled to see this article about Blaine and Freegeek, the organization he supports and inspires. The text excerpt is written by Marie Deatherage, Blaine’s mother:

And of course last but not least there’s the meaning it has in my son Blaine’s life. As many of you know, Blaine was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed and lacks sensation below his armpits. This past summer, Blaine received an award for “Volunteer Extraordinaire” at Free Geek in recognition that for the past five years, every day Free Geek is open and he is not really really sick, Blaine has been getting himself up and ready to go in and help that amazing nonprofit organization. I get to see what it takes for Blaine to make his important contribution. What can I say? He’s my hero.

I’ve always know what Free Geek does for Blaine, but I was stunned to hear what he means to Free Geek. Recently some of his co-workers there shared some thoughts about what Blaine provides Free Geek. When I heard these things, my heart soared like a hawk. I wish every mother had the opportunity to hear people appreciate their son or daughter like this:

* “Recently my niece signed up to volunteer at Free Geek, opting to work her way through the Computer Build program to earn a free computer. My advice to her was, ‘Prepare to work independently, overcome great frustration, and when in doubt, stay close to Blaine.’”

* “Blaine’s tutelage was instrumental in my making it through the Build program at Free Geek (launching me into other areas of contribution), and I know he has provided similar assistance to hundreds, if not thousands of other volunteers there.”

* “Blaine is an amazingly knowledgable and patient instructor and coordinator of other volunteers. Despite his limited mobility, Blaine is able to help direct and answer questions of our volunteers, which in turn keep our organization running.”

* “Blaine is among the most valued members of the Free Geek community and of its volunteer labor force.”

* “Blaine helps teach others good work skills and reinforces the importance of showing up on time and doing your job with all you have, and he is always willing to learn more from others to share with his students.”

* “I have been very impressed with Blaine’s patient and consistently upbeat contributions as a volunteer with the Free Geek build program. He was extremely supportive and helpful to a young man from a Haitian refugee family who learned a lot from a series of afternoons with Blaine: about computers, people, tolerance and empathy from his supportive manner and patient instruction.”

* “He is a beloved member of our community. It’s impossible to work with Blaine without appreciating his cheer and warmth. I’ve never seen him get irritated, even in the most difficult times; His equanimity helps us all to maintain our own sanity. He’s an inspiring presence.”

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