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David Pearson has founded Shawmut Education to establish computer training programs for the homeless.

From down and out to up and coming

04/07/2003 08:22 AM
By Elizabeth Dinan

He's a technology executive who spent some of the bubble years getting around in worn shoes, not a Beemer. While dot-com millionaires were furnishing downtown lofts, he was being evicted from an apartment and moving into a homeless shelter.

And while he still can't afford to buy his mother a birthday gift and lives in Section 8 housing, David Pearson, 50, is a success story. Not just because he's turned his hard luck into accomplishment. But also because he's bringing others up with him.

As executive director and founder of Shawmut Education Inc., Pearson's professional mission these days is to �empower homeless, formerly homeless and other at-risk individuals through the development and implementation of computer training curriculums.� In particular, he's establishing educational programs to train the homeless and poor how to build their own Web sites, both in the Boston area and in Jamaica.

He also thinks about taking Shawmut's programs around the globe, and one would be ill-advised to doubt his plan. That's because Pearson has already achieved much success following three years of homelessness and has fine-tuned the art of networking to his advantage.

How else do you explain the fact that three years after moving from a homeless shelter, he sits on the Volunteer Lawyers Project Board of Directors, is a member of the Massachusetts Client Council, serves on the Boston Society of Architects Task Force to End Homelessness, is a member of the Massachusetts Adult Literacy Technology Team, is a volunteer producer for Cambridge Community Television and an instructor with Cambridge's Project Lift?

He's also been keeping prestigious company. Most notably, Robert Doyle, a Harvard Ph.D. whose resume includes founding SuperSound, development of six electronic games including Merlin (5.5 million sold), the iXO Telecomputer and development of Apple's first desktop publishing software, MacPublisher.

Doyle allows Pearson to use his Cambridge computer lab as Shawmut headquarters as well as the tools from his Web hosting data center, Skybuilders, as base camp for Shawmut Education's student Web sites. He's even traveled to Jamaica to provide Skybuilder Web-building education as part of Shawmut's mission.

The project began in 1997 when Pearson went to Project Place for a meal and afterward walked behind it to the �Knowledge Center.� Here he helped other clients mine computer programs, while the executive director mentioned aloud that he should help all of the students in the center's computer lab.

It was a comment made in passing but one that Pearson took as a challenge. He�d just picked up a certificate in client server computer development from Clark University while living in a shelter and began thinking that the instructor might be onto something.

�I thought, what better way to turn around my situation than to help others,� he said.

So he wrote a plan and a plan of attack and ran it by Hale and Dorr attorneys at Jamaica Plain's Harvard Law Legal Services, which incorporated his idea into the nonprofit Shawmut Education Inc. It started as a Web-based reference of services for the homeless and grew from there.

Pearson brainstormed, networked and trained people daily until 10 p.m. � lights out at the shelter.

He began volunteering to update calendar listings for Cambridge Community Television, where he met Doyle, who's described by a colleague as �a technology giant.� Doyle allowed for Shawmut to have its first Web site, through Skybuilders, which is an open- source Web hosting center with 150 sites around the world.

�Everything we needed was here,� said Pearson, who continues to work out of Doyle's combination business lab/home when he's not working from his virtual office. And while he's impressed the city of Boston enough to win a 20-year, $25,000-a-year Timothy Smith Grant, the money can be used to purchase hardware, software or office furniture but not to rent an actual office or pay utilities. And if Pearson manages to raise funds for a lab, the physical space has to be in �old Roxbury' for him to begin spending the grant.

In the meantime, Pearson�s Shawmut Education has given one group of homeless and poor students the skills to build and maintain a Web site that keeps up-to-date information about food and shelter availability throughout Massachusetts. It replaces a book that used to be published by the city of Boston with 70 listings and stays more current than the older hard copy, with mire than 200 references.

�We call this capacity-building,� Doyle said. �They're providing a tool for the community, and they can eventually become self-sufficient.�

Pearson is teaching Web design to third- through 11th-grade students at Cambridge's Moore Community Center on older computers donated by Harvard and networked by Pearson. He's in discussions with Youth Build of Roxbury to offer Web-building education, as well as with a New Mexico legal services provider.

Through Shawmut's site, he's building Web sites for shelters and leads it all with a translation in Spanish. And in Jamaica, an old tractor-trailer cab is being converted into a networked and mobile computer lab, which is expected to roam the island with extended stays to teach the young population Web-building.

Pearson said Shawmut isn't making any money, not even enough to pay him. He lives on $600 a month �from other means� and in the subsidized housing. But it's not about the money.

�I believe this is a population that deserves a second chance,� Pearson said. �A lot of programs out there are about getting more money, not about teaching. This population is often very beat-up. I feel right now this is how I can help the best I can.�

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