Time to Help an Open Source Hero (Updated)

People contribute to free software in many ways. Some write the stuff; some write *about* the stuff, spreading the word; and some actually spread open source directly by giving away systems to those who need them. We hear a lot about the stars of first group, and the second group make a lot of noise on their own. But too often we take the third group for granted. I want to talk about one of the unsung heroes of open source – someone who has helped many, and now needs a little help from us.

His name is Ken Starks, although he's better known as Helios. Here's what he does with a few like-minded people:

The HeliOS Project is a non-profit organization that obtains old or repairable computers, refurbishes them and then gives them to disadvantaged kids in the Central Texas area. We have delivered our machines as far away as Wichita Falls Texas. Some of our laptop machines have been donated to people going on missions in Tonga, Eastern Europe and Africa.

To this date, we should install our 1000th computer by November 2009.

Even if you've never come across Helios and the HeliOS Project, you probably read about Helios' run-in last December with a teacher who was somewhat sceptical about whether software could ever be free:

The student was showing the ability of the laptop and handing out Linux disks. After confiscating the disks I called a confrence with the student and that is how I came to discover you and your organization. Mr. Starks, I am sure you strongly believe in what you are doing but I cannot either support your efforts or allow them to happen in my classroom. At this point, I am not sure what you are doing is legal. No software is free and spreading that misconception is harmful.

This gives an indication of the depth of ignorance that still exists in some parts of the educational system – and why the HeliOS Project is still so important.

Last week, the indefatigable Helios was hard at work:

Two months ago, Christina Collazo contacted me and asked if I was up to a challenge. She had been tasked with putting together an East Austin Computer Learning Center and didn't really know how to do it.

We do...

And we did.


With the temperature already in the mid-90's, we arrived at the back entrance of the Cristo Rey Catholic Church...this is the wonderful place that houses the Learning Center. Carrying in huge CRT monitors, computer boxes and various and asundry fixtures, this team went to work transforming a barren room into a place of learning and hope.

A place powered by the will of a global community.

A place powered by Linux.

There's not a lot to tell about the process...a lot of heavy labor, younger knees than mine crawling under tables to connect cat 5 to the adjoining sockets...testing, adjusting, testing, replacing, testing...and ultimately...


Actually, there was one more thing to “tell about the process” - something that the ever-modest Sparks was clearly reluctant to bother people with:

yesterday I collapsed while carrying a computer uspstairs. Lost complete consciousness and was transported to the nearest hospital where I was admitted for tests.

Diagonis was extreme exhaustion and dehydration. I am home now with orders to stay either in bed or in my home as quietly as possible. I am still very weak...who knew...?

But it gets worse:

I do have a problem though. My copay for the stay is 300 dollars and I just don't have it. That's not counting the ambulance ride, which is outrageous I hear.

I have never come to the community and asked for personal donations, but being a non profit I cannot stand for any delinquent payments or bills. If you can see your way clear to give me a hand, I would sure consider it at 180 day loan.

How could we refuse? Here is a man who is almost killing himself to get open source into the hands of people who could benefit, someone who has selflessly and tirelessly given, and who finds himself in need of a hand.

There's a Donate button in the left-hand column of the blog of Helios; a comment to the above post indicates that money sent to that general HeliOS Project account can be used for Starks' emergency needs, and this seems the easiest way to get money to him.

I've given $10, which may not be much, but if just a few dozen Linux Journal readers did the same, his hospital bills would be covered, and there might even be some money left over for the HeliOS Project too.

Oh, and BTW, Helios, I *don't* consider it a 180 day loan: keep it – you certainly deserve it.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter and identi.ca.

Update: Ken has asked me to post the following as his response to the generosity of Linux Journal readers:

Even as a Linux Advocate, there was a time I denied your existence...

The "Linux Community".

In fact, I have been quoted more than once as saying:

"There is no Linux Community. The best we've achieved is in forming warring factions that use the vast real estate of the Internet to wage bloody war against each other."

Recent events, prior to my illness have changed my mind and I publicly apologized for such foolish thoughts.

But this...this outpouring of Love and Concern and Compassion. It has driven me both to tears and to my knees in thanks...in gratitude and in humility. As much as I profess to being a writer, there are no words, no means of expression to convey my thanks to the hundreds of people that helped me. And trust me...it was needed.

The very best I can hope for is that whoever looks over you, place a gentle hand on your shoulder and gives you a loving squeeze.

I am so indebted to you, so thankful for the Linux Community, all I can do to repay you is to make sure that I live up to the expectations you have for me.

I give you my solemn oath that I will do so.

Ken Starks - aka helios


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I dont donate

leen's picture

I really felt terrible after reading this post and the post on Helios - and immediately donated a few bucks.

I hope things work out! keep up the good work!

thanks for doing so

Glyn Moody's picture

thanks for doing so

Be a part of the Community

Eugen Neuber's picture

Using linux is fine -- helping each other when help is needed is even better!

1 EUR = 1,39178 USD

To Ken: Please take it as a gift. Keep up the good work!

kind regards

Si Se Puede Learning Center, East Austin

Christina Collazo's picture

Hi, I'm the Director of Si Se Puede in East Austin. I have had the good fortune of working with Ken and the rest of the HELIOS team on this project. I can't thank them enough for all of their hard work and support. As of last Saturday, I have been bombarded with calls from people in the community asking if & when they can sign up for technology classes. They are all so eager to learn!!! With the help of HELIOS, we'll definitely be able to assist with their tech education.

Si Se Puede is a new non-profit in East Austin. We will hopefully have a webiste soon, if not then definitely a facebook page, until I can get to creating an official site. To learn more about us, feel free to contact me at sisepuedelc@hotmail.com. In the meantime, here's a little more about us and how we hope to better the community:

At ¡Sí Se Puede! Learning Center, we believe that “Yes We Can” improve the future of Central Texas by providing a nurturing environment in which young children and their parents gain the knowledge and skills to experience lifelong success.

“Yes, We Can” help children…
☺ Strengthen their values
☺ Discover through reading
☺ Imagine future possibilities

“Yes, We Can” help parents…
☺ Know their potential
☺ Teach their children
☺ Reach their goals


Glyn Moody's picture



Jan Hewes's picture

Some of us are getting tired of the same Helios "begging for money from the community" story being plastered all over every news site on the internet.

If you can't afford your bills, then go to school, get a better education and then find a better paying job.

I used to follow the Helios blog all the time but I'll never visit it again because I hate ads.. and begging for money from the community is an ad in my opinion.


Glyn Moody's picture

Well, if you've read his blog over the years you'll notice that Helios doesn't generally ask for anything: the fact that he has mentioned his situation this time, and asked for a *loan* - even though none of us wants to regard it as such - suggests that he is in rather dire straits, no?

And as for the idea that people should just "go to school, get a better education and then find a better paying job", isn't that *precisely* what Helios was selflessly trying to help others do - particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds - and at some personal cost to himself in terms of time, money and health? So shouldn't you be applauding his efforts and wishing him a speedy recovery so that he can continue to implement your philosophy more widely?

Just a thought....

Some history may be in order here.

Andrew Magnus's picture

Ken Starks is an educated man, BS in Psychology - completed his degree after retiring from the US Army. And while he will never talk about it, Ken served in the most hostile of environments and is highly decorated...but there are many who take that as a negative in a person's makeup. Service and sacrifice are not understood by many. Even today, after the service to his nation, he has thrown himself into the service of the Linux Community.

I have already stated here that I am bias as I have worked along side Ken for two years, off and on. I have spent hours in conversation with him. He is a deep and brilliant thinker. He is also one of the most compassionate men I have ever met. When Ken got laid off from a close to 100K a year job, it gave him time to think. Money is not important to Ken...the future of our kid is what is important to him.
With his bare hands and with precious little support, in two years Ken built and delivered just over 500 computers to the disadvantaged kids in the Central Texas area.

Ken gave up a lot when he took on The HeliOS Project as his full time job. And it really isn't a job for Ken, it is his calling. I doubt you know much about "a calling". Ken does. He also gave up a good insurance program and now carries catastrophic insurance only. Fortunately, it has covered the majority of this but the copays are murder. That is why he came to us. That is why we responded to him.

When a man is willing to work himself to near death to bring freedom to those needing it most, comments like yours simply show how small and insignificant your presence is in this community. That is if you are a member at all.

It takes money to do what Ken does. There are many who support him and do so gladly. Maybe you need to work along side Ken for a couple of days. In fact, I will pay your air fare if you live in the states and lodging for a five day stay, but you must agree to work with us every step of the way for the entire five days. My email address is valid, email me and I will make the arrangements.

Then you will see where the money goes.

Andrew Magnus
Austin Texas

I already know where the money goes

Sum Yung Gai's picture

I already know where the money goes. A year and a half ago, he showed me his operations when I was on the way back from the West Coast to the East Coast (I stopped in Austin for a day). He ain't kidding about his mission. The man is a true saint of a redneck, straight-up and focused on helping those kids and anyone else who will listen.

Jesus was misunderstood back in his day, too. Not that Helios is Jesus, obviously. But on a smaller scale, it's eerily similar.


East Side learning center

TK's picture

I'm the big guy in those pictures from Ken's blog, Tom King. Murphy's Law was pretty much in effect when we installed those computers in the classroom Saturday. I think all of the computers we used came from the Linux Against Poverty event (thanks, Lynn and everyone!), and, thankfully, only one of them had a problem booting. All the rest booted right up hungry for a network connection.

Ah yes, a network. I'm the supposed networking guru in the charity, and at the end of the day, we still had only 60% of the computers on the network. Lack of small switches and an initial failed plan to put all the computers on wireless had us switching gears right in the middle of the day. Ken and Skip ran back to storage and then to the Goodwill computer shop for some workgroup switches (after a lively debate about hubs versus switches, which I initially won but...) but Goodwill only had hubs. Ugh! "My kingdom for" some 8-port switches!! Thankfully, in some of the donations, we had two pretty good 24-port switches and I'll be going back to finish up the networking before the opening on September 1. Wish me luck! I tend to not keep cables neat, unfortunately, so I have some extra detail work to do as well. :-/

At the end of the day, all computers and CRTs powered up with a mix of Linux Mint and Mepis, and we have initially set up two computers with Spanish language support. They requested that we keep a mix of half English and half Spanish since the surrounding neighborhood has roughly that mix. Also, we committed to providing basic computer classes once a week - anyone in the Austin area that would like to help with that is welcome to contact Ken.

Speaking of contacts, a couple of folks asked for the postal address. From http://heliosinitiative.org/contact.php:
The HeliOS Project
1504 Giblin Bend Road
Austin, Texas 78728

There is a number on there as well, but Ken's phone is off while he is recovering. He will answer emails when he can, though.

Concerning the hospital bills, we directors also chipped in so we didn't ask folks to do something we weren't willing to do ourselves. Thanks to everyone that gave a hand!

And, no, we aren't GIMP heroes. If we were, I would be sure I didn't appear in those pictures. :)

thanks for the background

Glyn Moody's picture

good luck with your work - it's greatly appreciated by all in the community, I'm sure


LeeNukes's picture

I donated to this project too as I'm often reading good things about them. I think it was $20 at the time, the exchange rate was quite good so it worked out about £14 or so.

Worth the money and he contacted me back too, nice guy.

to the detractor

Andrew Magnus's picture

Your search abilities match your logic.

Easily found with search string of "helios project east austin"

You are too ready to besmirch one of the finest Linux Advocates of this age.

My only question now is your motive. I have worked along side Ken Starks for two years. He is twice my age and can work for hours after I am exhausted. He is driven by the need to give people open and free software. It appears he is willing to die doing it.

What is your contribution?

Andrew Magnus
Austin Texas

for real?

jackd's picture

I don't want to be the fly-in-the-soup, but do you actually know the man, and are you vouching for him? I don't know him except through his blog, which I've read a few times over the years. I've always gone away pretty skeptical.

The story you referenced about the supposed teacher was a silly and obvious ploy to generate clicks.

I also don't find anything substantive when googling "East Austin Computer Learning Center".

MCSE Alert!

Sum Yung Gai's picture

Yes, I know him. But what about you--what are you, a scared MCSE? Maybe even a Microsoft employee? Microsoft has already sent their attack-dogs on Ken before, and you sound like more of the same.

The man is a hero, so back off, MCSE.



David Gerard's picture

There appear to be a number of circulating claims that the Helios project is fake, that the blog is BS, etc. These appear to have sprung up when he got on the Microsoft bloggers' radars.

When someone claims this, ask for evidence that Ken is actually lying and that SPI have been fooled.

please email me a link...

Andrew Magnus's picture

I need to see these. I not only know and work with Ken, I will see to his legal counsel if necessary. Email me andymagnus88 at gmail dot com

Andy Magnus
Austin Tx

what's real?

Glyn Moody's picture

I don't *know* him - I've exchanged a few emails with him a few years ago. But I've certainly come across him many times over the last few years, and the picture that comes across is totally consistent: of someone who has dedicated much of his time and energy to getting GNU/Linux boxes out to people who need them.

Am I vouching for him? Yes, I suppose I am, implicitly. Whether I am in a position to do so, I leave you to judge. But in any case, you don't need me to vouch for him, since the well-respected Software in the Public Interest has published its agenda for August 2009, which includes the following item:

The HeliOS Project 1,799.00

(at http://www.spi-inc.org/secretary/agenda/2009/2009-08-19.html/)

Moreover, the Wikipedia page on the organisation:


also refers to the Helios project (albeit with a null entry).

You're right there's not much for "East Austin Computer Learning Center", but there's a Christina Collazo, based in Austin, Texas Area, which seems to match:


There's also more about her work here on the Helios blog:


And I don't think the teacher story was fake, because of this:


which all rings pretty true to me. As does every other post on his blog that I've read (most with corroborative pix). If they're all falsifications, then they are epic ones - and Helios really ought to be recognised alongside Homer....

suppose this is gimped?

Andrew Magnus's picture

I wouldn't...

Frank Earl's picture

...but I'd bet that there'd be some that would claim it was "'shopped" or "gimped".

Ken's the type that make people uneasy about things- themselves, especially.

In addition to a donation, I

Anonymous's picture

In addition to a donation, I have sent a letter of support to my congressman to encourage health care reform. No one should have to beg for basic health care, especially people like Ken who do so much for other people.


Glyn Moody's picture

for your support

Please Provide The Post Office Box Information For Cash Donation

John and Dagny Galt's picture

Please Provide The Post Office Box Information For Cash Donations.

John and Dagny Galt
Atlas Shrugged, Owners Manual For The Universe!(tm)


Cash donations

Anonymous's picture

If you wish, you can look up his home address on sites such as whitepages.com. He lives in Austin, TX.

SPI has a postal address

David Gerard's picture

I don't see an address for Ken personally, but SPI, who handle donations for Helios, have a postal address that accepts donations: http://www.spi-inc.org/donations . Presumably US donations would be payable to Software in the Public Interest, with a note that it's for Helios. I'd suggest you email them and ask.

anyone know?

Glyn Moody's picture

I don't, I'm afraid...

I just used the pay pal link on his blog

Jason's picture

That was when I was trying to pay him to set up my 67yr old mom's PC per the services offered on his business site, Helios Solutions (who says Linux isn't easy?).

I was at the end of one paycheck and waiting for another, so I paid him half up front intending to pay the rest come pay day. When my mom called to tell me the outcome, I was blown away.

He had determined that her computer was a little underspec'd, so he supplied her a refurb from the Helios Project, helped her get her peripherals set up, found out what she liked doing and set up additional software and showed her how to use and maintain it.

Then came the kicker. She said he told her to tell me the remaining payment was unnecessary and thanks for the donation. Since she is on a fixed income she qualified for help from Helios Project and he saw no reason to charge me. This despite the fact that he traveled 40mins out of town to get there and made 3 visits.

So, yes, Ken is definitely unreal.

great story

Glyn Moody's picture

..and, I would guess, typical of the man.

Donation sent

David Gerard's picture

$20, with note that excess from the bills can go to the project.

See, this is the great thing about asking readers who get paid in pounds sterling, the depleted uranium of currencies ;-)


Glyn Moody's picture

I'm sure he won't take a penny more than he needs, and that anything left over will go to furthering his life-project...

Money goes one-way only!

David Gerard's picture

I just don't want him thinking he has to send any of it back!

Heh. Falling ill could be the charity's most profitable product ;-) Like Wikipedia and downtime ...

good point

Glyn Moody's picture

I'm sure we all feel the same way: the money is now his to use as he thinks best - which, I'm certain will be excellent

he deserves it

cga's picture


i've just donated 30$ to Helios even if he blogged that he got the bills covered.
he just deserve it.


He can use it next time...

Glyn Moody's picture

...so thanks

Another $10

kaloskalyre's picture

Just sent in my contribution, another $10


Glyn Moody's picture



Anonymous's picture

Good work. I have also contributed. Not a loan.

Thank you,

Thank *you*

Glyn Moody's picture

Thank *you*


Khürt Williams's picture

Thanks for bringing Ken's need to my attention. I hope his recovery is swift. I have donated $25 to help him with his health care costs.


Glyn Moody's picture

Many thanks for that.