Ryan Fernandes, left, worked closely with Pat Parker, Triune Mercy Center associate director and employment specialist, to get the center's new computer lab up and running.

Ryan Fernandes, left, worked closely with Pat Parker, Triune Mercy Center associate director and employment specialist, to get the center’s new computer lab up and running.

Right down the street from Clemson at the Falls, where the College of Business and Behavioral Science’s MBA program is now headquartered, is a place called Triune Mercy Center. There, homeless and disadvantaged clients — people who live on the streets of downtown Greenville — seek solace, support and a hot meal.

You wouldn’t think that MBA students and homeless people would have much in common, but an innovative volunteer program has brought them together in what is hoped will be only the first of many collaborations between Clemson at the Falls and the community in which it’s located.

According to Gail DePriest, director of corporate relations and career management for Clemson’s MBA program, giving back to the community is “an important piece of our students’ responsibility as future business owners.”

DePriest has served on the board of directors at Triune Mercy for several years. Last summer, encouraged by the director of the Graduate Management Admissions Council, who had come from Washington, D.C., to talk about Clemson’s new location in downtown Greenville, she took a group of MBA students to visit Triune Mercy and brainstorm about what kinds of help the mission needed most.

DePriest recalled that “they had a pile of old, donated computers” stashed in an empty room on the third floor. Most of the computers were no longer in working order.

Enter Ryan Fernandes, an MBA student with a can-do attitude and entrepreneurial spirit.

“The computer project really resonated with Ryan,” DePriest said. “He started going back there every Tuesday, and that inspired other students. Even some of our professional night students heard about it, and got involved.”

Fernandes led a small team of student volunteers in creating a computer lab for Triune Mercy clients. First they rebuilt and restored the computers, then they scrounged up donations of carpet, desks and office chairs (old ones that had once been used in Sirrine Hall). Once the room was equipped, Fernandes’ crew started thinking about the best way to teach computer skills to the homeless — many of whom typically don’t have basic typing skills.

“The challenge for us as MBA students was, how do we help these people build competencies?” said Fernandes. “How do we use our skills to serve their needs and span those structural holes?”

Working with volunteer computer teacher Anita Burton, the students helped design a curriculum that started with beginning keyboarding and moved on to e-mail accounts, Internet searches and such programs as Excel and Word. Three people took the first class and received certificates of completion at the end.

“They told us that was a life-changing moment for them,” Fernandes said.

Since that inaugural class, in March, 10 more clients have completed the training and more are asking for it, according to Pat Parker, a staffer at Triune Mercy. The computer lab, enhanced with stylish Ikea lighting, is also open at other times for Triune clients who want to come in and create a resume or search online job forums. Burton, assisted by Clemson students, is there to offer help whenever the computer lab is open.

Fernandes noted that many homeless people are reluctant to use computers at public libraries for two reasons: They may be uncomfortable in the library because they have been evicted in the past for sleeping there, and they are embarrassed to ask for help in using the computers. Triune Mercy’s computer lab, he said, is a safe, welcoming alternative.

DePriest spoke with pride about the fact that MBA students have been so eager to volunteer in the community.

“The beauty of this is that our students have seen the need, and gotten plugged in and engaged with where their talents and time and skills led them.”

She also pointed out that the collaboration has continuity: A former MBA student helped purchase easels for Triune Mercy’s art room, where clients express their feelings by creating artwork, and others are now thinking about helping create a music room. At the MBA program’s graduate student social last fall, students, faculty and staff brought donations of items on Triune Mercy’s want list.

This fall’s entering class of MBA students, the first to start classes at the new downtown center, will be taken as a group to visit Triune Mercy early on.

“That’s the sustainable piece of this,” said DePriest. “It will continue from one group of students to the next.”

Fernandes, honorary godfather of the computer lab, received his MBA in May and left Clemson to settle in Boston. His last contribution was to suggest adding graphic design to the computer curriculum at Triune Mercy so that clients who are interested can learn solid job skills such as Photoshop and Autocad.

DePriest said that Fernandes’ leadership will be missed.

“His persistence and consistency really kept this project going,” she said.

No doubt it will continue, with eager men and women sitting at computers on the third floor of a downtown mission and learning how to change their lives, one keystroke at a time.

Written by Jeanne Malmgren, College of Business and Behavioral Science