'It's a basic need': Laptop drive aims to connect marginalized Edmontonians during pandemic

CBC

The gratitude of a nine-year-old boy who received a used laptop is inspiring youth worker Vedaste Ndamiye to increase internet access for marginalized families isolated by the pandemic.

"You could see the emotion in his eyes," said Ndamiye, who works with  C5 North East Community Hub, a gathering spot for youth, newer immigrants, single mothers, seniors and Indigenous families until it closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"(He said) 'wow I'm so happy now I'm going to be able to see my friends again. When are we going to open? This was like my second home'."

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C5 is increasingly shifting operations online to create virtual connections that respect rules of physical distance.

But many C5 clients who can't afford computers, laptops, tablets or Wi-Fi access, remain isolated.

"This is not a luxury, it's a basic need," Ndamiye said. "Because everybody has to have this to be able to connect to the world, know what's happening and connect with other people and attend school.

Corinne Saad
Corinne Saad

"If you do not have a computer you are totally disconnected." 

It's the reason C5 and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) have launched a laptop drive to put hardware into the hands of those without it.

Donated laptops and tablets will help clients from five agencies — including EMCN and the Terra Centre — access programs, keep up on school work and stay in touch with family and friends.

Once donors fill out a form on the C5 website, volunteers will arrange pickup, sanitize the hardware and ensure it's ready for use. Equipment will be distributed among their 30,000 clients.

The technology will allow users to stay up to date on the latest information and enhance well-being by fostering virtual connections for isolated young mothers, members of cultural or religious groups and those with relatives overseas. 

For C5 youth, it means being able to connect on Zoom daily to read together, do crafts, hang out with friends and check-in with a youth worker.

"Most kids are not going to just tell you what's going on," Saad said, emphasizing the importance of face-to-face contact. "You're reading all sorts of things about them — their body language, how they're looking at you ... and then you're asking the questions that will begin to get you to what's really going on."

Back-to-school, digitally

It's the kind of contact youth are missing out on as schools remain closed indefinitely. Edmonton school boards are developing alternative programming as spring break comes to an end.

Along with distance learning, much of the instruction will be delivered online making internet access imperative. Staff at Edmonton Public Schools are contacting families to assess access levels. Resources such as printed out workbooks will also be used.

"We encourage families to speak to their child's principal should they have any concerns about access to devices and/or Wi-Fi," spokesperson Carrie Rosa said in an email. 

Edmonton Catholic is establishing remote learning classrooms.

"Each school will know which students and families don't have access to technology so will work with those families to establish remote learning," Edmonton Catholic spokesperson Lori Nagy said.

Meanwhile at EMCN, online English classes start April 6 for about 900 people, which is bound to create challenges, executive director Ricki Justice said.

Parents and kids will all need online access in households that often have just one cellphone.

"So everyone will be fighting over whatever device they may have at home, if any," Justice said.

Lack of access to Wi-Fi

But the barriers extend beyond hardware as organizers look for ways to make Wi-Fi accessible.

Saad is talking to telephone companies with plans to approach Capital Region Housing as organizers float multiple ideas including asking Edmontonians to consider sharing internet connections with neighbours who aren't online.

Ensuring everyone knows how to use the technology is also a priority as agencies make sure older members are connected, including one member who received a laptop this week.

Corinne Saad
Corinne Saad

"[Ndamiye] talked him through how to use it, what to do  — he's so excited," Saad said.

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