By Cameron Lee
August 12, 2020 (updated)
Often in society what divides social and economic classes are the things that many may deem as basic necessities. While access and education have historically been the main vessels used to separate the haves and have-nots, in current times, especially in the post-Covid-19 era, the digital divide is more crucial than ever.
For Pat Millen, a Charlotte-born Davidson College graduate, the dilemma was originally presented to him in 2012 when his then 12-year-old daughter came home from school one day pondering how all of her assignments required a computer, knowing some kids in school didn’t have one.
“We kind of got stuck on this whole notion of this digital divide. So as a family, we just started kind of looking into what is a digital divide,” said Millen. “How big is it? Is it really pervasive? Is it everywhere? Is it just like in really poor urban parts of Charlotte? And as a family, we just sort of dug in and started researching.”
In 2013, Millen and his family started the nonprofit E2D to develop solutions to get computers into the hands of kids whose families couldn’t afford them. They reached out to nearby Davidson Elementary School to evaluate the need in their own community.
Identifying 54 families that didn’t have a computer at home, they devised a plan to come up with a $300 budget for each family that would include a refurbished computer and discounted internet plan. Two days before the new school year, they were able to present 54 computers with internet plans to those families in need.
“That felt pretty good. The principal that day, got to go to sleep at night saying, ‘Hey, I’m probably the only school in the area where I can say I’ve got a zero percent digital divide,’” said Millen.
While E2D’s origins derived from a general concern, the curiosity of how much further they could positively impact others in need led to Millen using his corporate connections to gain more resources. A significant moment occurred when a contact at Lowe’s, who wasn’t able to contribute monetary resources, offered to donate 500 used computers a year. While the laptops were pretty bare, they were in good condition. The newly acquired resources attracted a truly altruistic connection with a local retired Duke Energy computer engineer, Al Sudduth, a friend of Millen’s who volunteered to refurbish them.
“So it all basically started with Al building these computers for us. And then after a while, we started getting more computers, so we started hiring a couple of kids from the local high school, Hough High School to help do some of the refurbishment,” said Millen.
They continued to reach out to schools in their community to identify needs and distribute computers, and in 2014, CMS started to pay more attention to what E2D was doing in Cornelius and Davidson.
“So there were five Title 1 high schools at the time. West Mecklenburg, West Charlotte, Harding, Vance and Garinger,” Millen said. “We built 500 computers, and we delivered 100 computers to each of the principals at those five high schools.”
Millen soon met with then West Charlotte principal Dr. Timisha Barnes-Jones to discuss ways to concentrate the student work force to refurbish the computers in Charlotte. Barnes-Jones, a recipient of the Wells Fargo South West Regional Principal of the year honor in 2019, jumped at the idea of employing West Charlotte students for the program. Barnes-Jones led Millen to a lonesome trailer on campus and gave Millen the keys, greenlighting the program to start at West Charlotte.
“About two months later, we hired our first cohort of kids at West Charlotte. They come three days a week after school for three hours a day and they refurbish computers for us,” said Millen.
E2D even won a Blue Diamond Award for Human IT Workforce Development in 2016– an honor celebrating the Charlotte regions technology achievements– for their work at West Charlotte.
“We had 60 people on the payroll building computers… this coming weekend when we do our thing on Saturday, we’ll pass the 13,000th computer that we’ve built since 2013,” Millen said.
In previous years, E2D’s laptop distribution days, or “D-days” as they refer to them, were at physical locations like ImagineOn, where people would wait in line the Saturday before school started. This year of course, will be different. AvidXchange, the Charlotte-based software company, not only provided 1,600 square feet of working space for E2D when schools were shut down due to Covid-19, but they also host the drive-thru/walk-up for distribution day.
As for the laptops, CMS schools, government agencies, and local nonprofits seek out those in need of the computers prior to the event, but the opportunity to purchase a refurbished laptop for just $75 is open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis with a student ID number. Millen recommends arriving early because they sell out fast.
While there is no question that the impact of providing students in need with computers and internet access is deeply gratifying and essential, the job experience and paying the students $10 to $15 an hour is invaluable.
“The fact that we do it by creating workforce development opportunities for these students is huge. Like, it is the greatest way for a lot of these kids to get out of poverty,” Millen said.
Students not only have a chance to help provide for their families, but some have even gone on to receive full-time tech jobs and scholarships from local companies like Red Ventures.
“What I think is the most exhilarating thing about what we do is that every computer that we can get to a family has the potential to uplift the owner, like, immediately bring them right back to an equal standing with the kids that have had computers.”
While many nonprofits and charitable organizations attempt to cure complex problems with convoluted solutions and political processes, Millen and E2D have been making substantial strides in helping to bridge the digital divide in the Charlotte area.
Learn more about E2D and check out the details on their Back To School Drive-Thru/Walk-Up Laptop Distributions.