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Group that teaches students to refurbish laptops has new space and expanded mission

E2D work line crop.png
Ann Doss Helms
Students refurbish computers at the new E2D work space in South End's Railyard building, which was donated by Ernst & Young.

A Davidson-based program that teaches students to restore laptop computers has a new space in Charlotte’s South End and an expanding mission. It’s part of a broader coalition working on digital equity.

E2D, short for Eliminate the Digital Divide, started in 2012, when 12-year-old Franny Millen of Davidson told her parents that middle school classmates who didn’t have computers at home didn’t have a fair shot at doing their work.

The quest to refurbish donated laptops for students in need started small, with a few students from Hough High School working in a basement. The program moved into a bigger space in Cornelius, and eventually opened shops at West Charlotte, Garinger, South Mecklenburg and Olympic high schools. Computers were distributed through Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

E2D recently tallied 30,000 computers handed out since 2013.

Of course, the pandemic upended E2D, just like everything else. The refurbishing shops at schools shut down when classes went remote. The AvidXChange Music Factory on the north edge of uptown Charlotte donated space for students to keep working, with masks and safe distancing.

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Ann Doss Helms
Justien Nguyen, who will be a freshman at the new Palisades High School, works on an E2D computer.

And federal COVID-19 aid poured in to help school districts provide laptops for all students. Pat Millen, E2D founder and Franny's father, says the group refocused its mission.

"We do most of our distributions now to open populations," he said last week. "We’ve worked with the schools traditionally over the years, but now as long as you can verify that you need a computer it doesn’t matter. We’ll do it with seniors. We’ll do it with school-age children as well."

Anyone who qualifies can get a refurbished laptop for $80. Millen says they’d normally sell for $600 to $1,200 and should last four or five years.

"These are not being held together with Band-Aids," Millen said. "These are great computers."

New space in Charlotte's South End

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Ann Doss Helms
The new Ernst & Young work space includes a view of Charlotte's South End.

Now the program has gotten another boost: Ernst & Young has donated space for another workshop at The Railyard in Charlotte’s South End. That connection came through the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative and the newly formed Charlotte Center for Digital Equity, based at Queens University.

"All the players engaged in Charlotte in this work are now working together shoulder to shoulder to make sure that every household in the county has a computer," Millen said. "Just a Chromebook from the school system is not enough, because you can’t use it to get a job and you can’t use it to send your grandmother a birthday card."

This summer E2D has about 50 students from across CMS working in the South End, Music Factory and Cornelius locations. The jobs pay from $12.50 to $18.50 an hour. Hiring is fiercely competitive, as Maya Stokes learned when she applied as a student at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.

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Ann Doss Helms
Maya Stokes, a recent CMS graduate who's going to Duke University, is working for E2D this summer and plans to continue similar work at college.

"I think there were around 200-plus applicants for 10 positions and I was fortunate enough to get it," she said.

Stokes just graduated and has been admitted to Duke University, where she plans to double-major in computer science and statistics. She says she has learned technical skills in the shops and deeper lessons when she helped distribute the computers.

There, Stokes says she'd see families coming up in tears to thank student workers for the laptops — "the computers that you directly worked on. So I definitely know I want to give back some way in the computer space when I go to college."

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Ann Doss Helms
Tri Nguyen, who will be a senior at Olympic High, has worked for E3D since he was a freshman.

On a recent afternoon Justien Nguyen, a new employee who will be a freshman at Palisades High, checked the condition of donated laptops and cleaned them before handing off to his older brother, Tri Nguyen. He’s a senior at Olympic High and has worked for E2D for three years.

"I put Windows 10 on them, and it’s pre-downloaded with Google Chrome, Google Drive, all the stuff that a student needs to be successful," Tri Nguyen explained.

He also said he likes working at distributions: "It’s really nice to know that while I’m here in the lab right now, making these computers, when I’m out there at distribution I really get to see, like, who I’m giving it to and who I’m helping and who’s beneficial in this community we have."

State surplus computers expand the mission

E2D still gets donated laptops from private sources. But there’s also a new source: State law now requires that all state surplus computers be donated to nonprofit refurbishers. Christy Cowan, community partnership and distribution coordinator for E2D, says her group is one of only two in North Carolina, along with the Kramden Institute in Durham.

And that creates a new challenge: Because E2D is getting computers from across the western part of the state, distribution can no longer be limited to Mecklenburg County.

"That will be part of my job," she said, "to go out and find how am I going to get these laptops deployed in Watauga County, Catawba County, Gaston County. Am I going to work with libraries? Am I going to work with schools? Am I going to work with agencies?"

It's just one more adaptation for a group that has been evolving ever since a 12-year-old wanted to do something to make life fairer for her classmates.

Franny Millen, by the way, just graduated from Kenyon College.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.