Hundreds of new CMS graduates getting free laptops. How a local nonprofit made it happen

A local nonprofit is giving a free laptop to every Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools graduate headed this fall to a historically Black college or university.

E2D – which stands for “Eliminate the Digital Divide” is a Davidson-based nonprofit aimed at providing free, refurbished personal computers to North Carolinians who need them. The organization has given out 42,600 laptops since its founding in 2013. Over the past two weeks, the organization has distributed laptops to around 700 CMS graduates headed for HBCUs in-state and out-of-state in the fall – 7.5% of total CMS graduates this year.

It’s not the first time E2D has focused on CMS students. The organization began as an effort to get laptops to families who needed them in Davidson, where E2D’s CEO and founder Pat Millen’s three children attended CMS’ Davidson Elementary School. In 2013, E2D gave out 150 laptops in its first year. In 2023, it distributed around 12,000. It’s aiming for at least 15,000 in 2024.

“If you don’t have a computer in 2024 in North Carolina, you’re going to struggle,” said Millen. “Our goal is for every home in North Carolina to have an unrestricted computer in it so families can have what they need to be prosperous.”

Last year, it partnered with Johnson C. Smith University, down the road from one of E2D’s two Charlotte labs. School leaders found out of JCSU’s 1,086 students, 380 of them reported not having access to a personal computer. The project at JCSU was the inspiration for E2D’s collaboration with CMS.

“Devices are embedded within everything we do as a society, and it’s similar for students on campus,” said John Oliver, project manager for the Connecting Minority Communities Grant at Johnson C. Smith University. “Just like textbooks used to be key, and students who couldn’t get access to them at the start of the semester fell behind, that’s how laptops are because assignments start day one.”

David W. Butler High School graduates listen to various speeches before going onto the stage to receive their diplomas at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte on Monday, June 10, 2024.
David W. Butler High School graduates listen to various speeches before going onto the stage to receive their diplomas at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte on Monday, June 10, 2024.

Oliver said access to laptops can particularly be an issue for first-generation college students.

“Many of our students are first-gen students and come from families that support them in every aspect but still can have issues with finances sometimes, and many of them don’t have personal devices,” he said. “Having that device the first day in class increases their engagement and self-efficacy.”

That’s where E2D came in. Within an hour in April 2023, it raised the money necessary to get laptops to each student at Johnson C. Smith who reported needing one.

Free laptops in Charlotte

Companies like Truist, Wells Fargo and Lowe’s donate used laptops by the thousands to E2D, which hires and trains high school students in the Charlotte area to refurbish and repair them. E2D currently employs around 70 Charlotte-area students in its labs, Millen said. The revamped computers are then donated to families who lack access to their own devices. These are also the laptops E2D gave to CMS grads.

Around 328,000 households in North Carolina currently do not have computers, including 26,000 in Mecklenburg County.

In 2022, Honeywell pledged to donate 13,000 already-refurbished laptops to E2D over the next five years to spread digital equity in Mecklenburg County.

“That’s about $5 million in laptops,” said Honeywell Vice President of Information Technology Angela Bhurji. “And it should cut down on the number of Charlotte households that don’t have laptops by half.”

Bhurji also now serves on the board of E2D. She said around one third of the laptops Honeywell committed to donate have already been distributed, but she doesn’t have an exact number.

CMS laptops after graduation

A West Charlotte High School graduate shares a hug after the graduation ceremony at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte on Monday, June 10, 2024.
A West Charlotte High School graduate shares a hug after the graduation ceremony at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte on Monday, June 10, 2024.

CMS students get access to Chromebooks to use for school work, but when they graduate, they turn them back in.

“These laptops often come to us at only three or four years old,” Millen said about the devices that companies donate to E2D. “These are great computers to begin with, and when we’re done with them, they’ll easily work for four to five more years.”

So, why HBCUs?

After giving Johnson C. Smith students laptops, E2D hired an HBCU impact fellow. She found one in three students who start at HBCUs in North Carolina do not continue into their second year, and access to a laptop is a factor for many students.

“E2D’s focus on CMS students who have enrolled and are headed to an HBCU in the fall ensures that these students will have access to the technology they’ll need to be successful in college,” a spokesperson for CMS wrote in a statement to The Observer. “It is crucial that students have access to technology and the internet – without it, they could be at a disadvantage in completing assignments, conducting research, and developing their digital literacy skills.”

Millen said he was inspired to make sure lacking a personal computer was never the reason a student had to abandon school.

“It’s a tool of empowerment,” he said.

Millen says E2D is just getting started.

“There are still 300,000 North Carolina households that don’t have their first computers,” he said. “We want anyone who needs a computer to be prosperous to get one.”