Santa Cruz computer programmer spreads international good will

By Alia Wilson Posted: 08/23/2009 01:30:48 AM PDT

Five thousand miles away from Santa Cruz, a paralyzed Croatian woman can access a world of communication with just a motion of her head.

After a 12-hour flight last month, Jon Bjornstad, a Santa Cruz freelance computer programmer, met Stanka Karadole, a paralyzed woman who lives in the Croatian town of Sibenik where he was sent to install a program he created called Sue Center. After nearly 40 hours of translation, Bjornstad created the first foreign language, international version of his program that helps quadriplegics use computers.

Already used by about a half-dozen people in the San Francisco and Monterey bay areas, the program works by employing a small camera to track a reflective dot on the user's forehead. When a user moves her head, a cursor glides across the computer screen, allowing them to create text documents, play music, store photos and make phone calls using Skype.

The technology is nothing new. That Bjornstad gives it away for free is.

"Being able to do this gives meaning to my life," he said. "If I could be of service to someone, especially in a way that improves their lives, that's why we're here."

A single phone call from Roy and Ana Cook of Saratoga led Bjornstad to the distant Croatian town. After seeing an article about the program in the newspaper, Ana Cook, a Croatian immigrant, immediately thought of her friend back home. The Cooks decided to fund Bjornstad's trip so he could install his program in Karadole's home. Karadole was paralyzed in a solo car crash 15 years ago and spends most of her time recording television specials on Sibenik and Croatia. "I know very well how much money my friend Ana and her husband Roy have paid Jon to come to Croatia and I am very thankful to them for that, but money does not only matter," Karadole wrote in an e-mail. "More than money, I am so grateful that they thought about me and that they found a way to help me. That is called friendship."

Karadole said she hopes to be the first of many other international connections for Bjornstad.

"It took a good bit of doing to get it right," Bjornstad said. "The next language should be much easier. I'm going to translate the program into Spanish next."

Bjornstad created the program nine years ago for Sue Simpson, a paralyzed woman he first volunteered to help with technology issues in the 1980s. Since then, he has installed the program for people in Santa Cruz, Watsonville, San Jose, Newark, Fremont and Ohio.

Next, Bjornstad anticipates an installation in Mississippi and his second international installation in India.

"It's not about how many users I have really, but how people's lives are changed," Bjornstad said. "It's been a perfect storm of international good will."