James Burgett, founder of the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, describes himself as "a former homeless junkie and tattooed freak."

Burgett refurbishes old computers and finds a new purpose for them. In the same way, he hires recovering drug addicts and ex-convicts who want to turn their lives around like he did.

"Computers are the easy part,'' said Burgett, 43. "But we basically take in people's waste and make use of it.''

On Saturday, Burgett hosted "Installfest'' at the center's Berkeley headquarters at 1501 Eastshore Highway. Burgett and his crew of workers, programmers, technicians and volunteers installed new software on donated recycled computers to help divert thousands of pounds of toxic waste from landfills.

Additionally, the event was held at several other locations around the Bay Area for the first time, including San Mateo, San Francisco and Novato.

The recycled computers will be donated to schools throughout Northern California. Some will also go to libraries and community centers around the Bay Area to help underprivileged kids gain access to computers.

"Components go obsolete, but no computer isn't upgradable or interchangeable,'' said Burgett. "I can take parts from a Compaq of 10 years ago and put it into a Dell or Gateway from yesterday.''

During the past 14 years, the center has given away about 16,000 computers. The center collects about 300,000 pounds of household electronic parts, computers, TVs and VCRs a month. Burgett said he also pulls about 24 computers a month out of dumpsters.

"People throw away perfectly good hardware because a salesman has told them they need something newer and faster,'' he said.

Burgett's company takes in old computers and installs Linux, a free open source software. The computers are made desktop-ready with an entire word processing spread database and a Mozilla Web browser program for the Internet.

Because Linux is not a proprietary software, its no-cost licensing allows Burgett to lift up the hood and play with it, he said.

"It makes everyone an innovator,'' Burgett added.

Burgett first began to refurbish and trade computers to support his drug habit, he said. He started a business called Counter Culture Computer, and "No suit, No tie, No bull'' was the company slogan.

Burgett said the business eventually failed because every time he made money, he spent it on drugs and partying.

When Burgett finally kicked his drug habit about 14 years ago, he got a large tattoo. He also got another one during the dot.com boom, when the center grossed $1.2 million one year.

Today, the center mainly contracts with cities in the Bay Area to haul away hardware. Trucks and vans are sent out to pick up old computers and other electronics. The center's doors stay open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday for people who want to donate their old equipment.

The center holds computer giveaways every two weeks, and also schedules international placement of computers quarterly.

On Saturday, computer work stations were set up inside the center's 15,000-square-foot facility, where dozens of volunteers installed the latest software.

There were more than 1,000 computers in various states of disrepair. There sat bins full of computer keyboards, cables and mouses. The main attraction was a giant "skull" made of computer guts including circuit boards, monitors and keyboards.

Phil Fraser, 58, was hard at work in the center's refurbishing department. He has worked at the center for four years, and was referred through his drug-rehabilitation program.

"It's a nice, clean, sober place to work,'' said Fraser, who served prison time for cocaine use. "Everyone shares my background.''

Before working at the center, Fraser had used computers only to play games in his drug-rehabilitation program. Now, he builds computers and supervises the refurbishing department.

Burgett said he is proud of the way his company is helping others and saving computer parts from being discarded improperly.

"Recycling computers is a much better way to go,'' Burgett said. "It's the environmental way to go, and the cheaper way to go for the consumer.''

Contact Kamika Dunlap at kdunlap@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6448.