Jack Nork, founder of GiveLaptops.org

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Things have changed since I attended high school in the 90s. Research meant retrieving books from library shelves, and I handed in plenty of handwritten assignments.

Now, an internet connection and a computer are common tools for making the grade. But not every student has equal access to those tools, and those who don’t are at a serious disadvantage.

New Haven-based GiveLaptops.org works to help such kids, providing them with a laptop for schoolwork. The program accepts donated, well-functioning machines for this purpose, which means anyone with a spare laptop sitting around the house can make a huge difference in the life of a young person.

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GL began after Jack Nork, Senior Project Manager for software company Revionics, decided to take up an open-ended challenge presented by Create96, an initiative launched by two of his office mates at local co-working hub The Grove. The idea was for participants to produce new things and, in doing so, inspire others to get creative.

Most people created poems, music or other artworks, says Nork. But his wife, a teacher at Amity High School, mentioned that one of her students had to bicycle to his grandmother’s house each time he was required to hand in a typed lab report.

“Can’t we do something for this kid?” she asked her husband, catalyzing a new program—not of the software sort, but of the hardware sort. GiveLaptops formed in December of 2012.

“There’s something called a ‘digital divide,’ which GiveLaptops is trying to break down,” Nork says. “We’re trying to enable kids who don’t have a way to get on the internet to be able to do that.”

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Nork partnered with two other New Haven-based groups to get his idea up and running: the Groundworks Initiative, a New Haven-based “social mission movement,” and Citywide Youth Coalition, which, as GL’s “fiscal sponsor,” is the umbrella non-profit that allows the program to accept tax-deductible donations.

The key to the program’s effectiveness, Nork says, is that GiveLaptops relies on the very people who know these students best—their teachers—to identify students who most need and would most benefit from a technology upgrade. “We partner with great teachers who really know their kids,” he says. “So when they say that their kid needs a laptop, we know that they do.”

GiveLaptops.org is currently working with Amity High School in Woodbridge; New Horizons, an alternative high school in New Haven for students who have had trouble at traditional schools; and The Future Project, a non-profit working to engage and excite high schoolers in New Haven.

Nork says he’ll expand if he can get enough donated hardware. He’s specifically looking for working laptops that are less than five years old. Donating is as easy as filling out a simple donation form online and dropping the computer off at one of two donation sites, The Grove or the Amity Teen Center, during open hours. Once donated, the laptop is refurbished—wiped clean to eliminate any security concerns and upgraded so that its software is reasonably current.

Nork isn’t looking for desktops because portability is crucial for the students they serve. “A lot of these kids don’t have internet in their homes,” he says. “We want them to be able to connect to the internet and be able to do their research and online assignments” wherever there’s Wi-Fi—at their school, or at a coffee shop.

Merrie Harrison, a teacher at New Horizons, says that online research is expected at the high school level, but many of her students can only do so via their phones. “That’s really limiting,” she says.

Tramaine Williams, a New Horizons student endeavoring to become a professional boxer, needs to go on the road for tournaments but also needs to keep up with schoolwork. The school okayed distance learning, and GiveLaptops.org filled the technology gap.

Another New Horizons student wanted to take a class at Gateway Community College during her senior year. With an already busy schedule, a laptop from GiveLaptops.org made taking the class a possibility, as she was able to complete assignments at home or on the go.

The student, who got excellent grades and went on to join the Navy, is “a huge success story,” says Harrison. She’s evidence of what the non-profit makes possible. “When you have a kid that’s that motivated, but they don’t have the resources, and then they’re able to get them, they really excel.”

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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