Roepke, Dreamer, Founder of Computer C.O.R.E.
November 9, 2007
Roepke is the seventh of 12 Living Legends for
2007 whose lives will be chronicled in the
Alexandria Gazette Packet, this year. They are
being chosen from the list of 49 people
nominated by you. Living Legends of Alexandria
will be an ongoing project that documents the
lives of individuals who have made tangible
contributions to the quality of life in
In 1998, Minnesota native Debra Roepke was new
to the Washington area, working in a job she
didn’t love and itching to use her creativity,
management skills, and computer knowledge to
help others. Her idea was to teach computer
skills to people who didn’t even know how to
use a mouse.
That idea eventually became Computer Community
Outreach and Education (Computer C.O.R.E.), a
501(c)(3) nonprofit agency whose mission is to
help Northern Virginia’s low-income adults
improve their career opportunities through job
skills training, mentoring, and job placement
guidance. The students spend at least 6 hours a
week in classes in the basement of Fairlington
Presbyterian Church, where they learn computer
skills, how to write a resume, the importance of
being on time, how to develop a good work ethic,
and how to interview for a job.
Roepke founded the organization with the help of
Pastor Jan Edmiston and the church’s elders.
The first generation of her family to attend
college, she put herself through Macalester
College in St. Paul, Minnesota, earning a degree
in biology while also working 60 to 70 hours.
But at critical junctures, she said, "Key
people helped me, and I want to pass it
Roepke has used her life experiences as building
blocks. Even the boring job had its
compensations: She met her future husband, John
Nelson, there, and they now have a 9-month-old
daughter. The company helped her get her
master’s degree in Science, Technology and
Public Policy at George Washington University in
the District of Columbia.
One of her college jobs was in a computer store,
where her boss became a mentor. After
graduation, she worked in the information
technology (IT) department of Grinnell College
in Iowa. In her spare time, she taught a
computer course at the local community college.
In the first class, everyone stared stonily
after she’d explained how to start. Finally,
in desperation, she said, "Push the big red
button on the right." As one, the students
did as they were told, and the class began to
move. By the end of the semester, half the
students in the first class had succeeded in
getting new jobs.
WHILE WORKING IN IT at Grinnell, Roepke
supervised 50 student employees who worked an
average of six hours a week. So she learned to
break down bigger tasks into small blocks.
"That’s been critical in managing an
organization where essentially the direct
services are all provided by volunteers,"
she said. During a year in Denmark on a Rotary
Club exchange program, she became close friends
with her host family. Her "Danish Dad"
also became a mentor. When she sought advice at
a critical juncture, he told her not to take a
new job just for the sake of moving on or up.
"It is time to decide what will be your
life’s work," he said.
So she turned down an IT startup job and
eventually accepted that job in Washington. She
started attending Fairlington Presbyterian
Church. When she discussed with the pastor her
idea of using space in the church to teach
computer skills to the underemployed, Edmiston
suggested she write up a proposal for the church
elders. The elders approved an initial donation
of $10,000 to start the program, and also
provided a $20,000 line of credit for the
Incorporated in 1999, Computer C.O.R.E. this
year has a budget of $307,000 in cash and
$600,000 in in-kind donations of computers,
office supplies and equipment, and most
critically, the hours of time contributed by
Every half year, a class of 48 students, broken
into classes of 12, starts from scratch,
learning how to use a mouse, how to save a
document, how to use Windows, Word, Excel,
PowerPoint and e-mail. By the end of the 6-month
course many can give a PowerPoint presentation.
At least two students apply for every space.
They are screened for English language skills,
and to be sure the computer classes are at the
right level for them. They must be prompt and
faithful in attendance or they lose their places
in class to someone on the waiting list – a
consequence that successfully teaches a good
Students pay $150 for the course. Both students
and volunteers sign a 6-month contract
committing them for the duration of the course.
It takes 80 volunteers to run a semester course.
Each class of 12 has a teacher and an assistant.
Others volunteer as technicians who maintain and
reconfigure the computers used by the five paid
staff members, the students and the volunteers.
Each graduate receives a computer to take home,
which furthers the impact of the program on the
community, said Dawn Terminella, C.O.R.E.’s
operations manager, one of only 5 paid staffers.
Two thirds of the students have families, and
taking home a computer not only gives the
graduates access to e-mail and the ability to
maintain business contacts, it also enables them
to teach their children to use computers, giving
them a tool toward school readiness.
NETWORK ADMINISTRATOR Jim Clager is a volunteer
who works 8 hours every Saturday maintaining and
refurbishing the computers donated by
corporations and local governments. In
Clager’s day job as a management consultant
for Booz Allen Hamilton, he supports a major IT
project for the Marine Corps at Quantico. He
calls Roepke "a human dynamo. I’m amazed
at her energy, her passion, and her amazing
ability to work with people."
C.O.R.E. receives financial support and in-kind
donations from major corporations and
philanthropic organizations, this year including
Northrop Grumman, Boeing, the Meyer Foundation,
the Claude Moore Foundation, the Philip L.
Graham Fund and the City of Alexandria’s
Community Partnership Fund.
Janice Pritchett is the grants administrator for
Alexandria’s Department of Human Services,
which administers the Alexandria Fund for
Community Services. "Computer C.O.R.E.
provides a service than many residents value in
this community," she said.
Dale Rainville manages Boeing’s Global
Corporate Citizenship programs for the
Washington, DC area. Computer C.O.R.E. is one of
the few nonprofits that made it to the top of
their list of partner organizations. They have
supported C.O.R.E for 4 years, he said, because
"We were impressed by the Executive
Director, Deb Roepke, and her ability to
acknowledge the organization’s need to
continually challenge and evaluate itself."
Leslie Downing volunteered as a fulltime manager
of career and life services at C.O.R.E. for 2 _
years. "Deb definitely excels at giving
people responsibility, at sensing potential, at
taking chances on people’s innate
abilities," Downing said. "It’s
extraordinary how much students change in the
6-month span of the program. They have every
reason not to do this – they have families,
often hold down two jobs, they have few
skills." For her, the reward was seeing the
students develop skills and self-esteem.
Connie Hanson was a volunteer for years. "C.O.R.E.
really does empower and transform lives,"
she said, "not just of the students but
also of the volunteers." A former teacher,
she first volunteered there as a curriculum
specialist and eventually became the paid
Education Coordinator. Two years ago, using her
new skills and experience, she moved on to a
position in the State Department.
Del Ray resident Gretchen Steenstra is also a
longtime volunteer and a current board member.
"Deb is a creative person and she’s
organized. You don’t usually get those two
qualities in the same person," Steenstra
In the beginning, Steenstra said, most students
were low-income locals. Now, most are
immigrants, with very high graduation and
success rates. Two thirds are women, a quarter
get new jobs, a quarter get pay raises, and 30
percent enroll in higher education. Some even
Graduate Abdul Agermoune graduated from the
program in 2001. A recent immigrant from
Morocco, he was working as a busboy when he
heard about C.O.R.E. He was soon hired as a
teller and is now a financial analyst. He often
comes back to the program to help. "When I
see the other students, I see myself as I
was." As a Muslim, he was at first uneasy
about attending a program in a Christian Church.
"Deb made me change my idea about
churches," he said. "Helping others is
the best kind of worship – people giving up
their time, which is very precious."
Roepke’s management skills have laid the
groundwork for the organization to flourish
after she moves on to the next phase in her life
in January. She will be finding new ways to use
her own potential, which is just the opportunity
she offered to the students, staff, and
volunteers at Computer C.O.R.E.
"Living Legends of Alexandria" is a
project of the Rotary Club of Alexandria in
partnership with the Alexandria Gazette Packet.
Nina Tisara is Project Director