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

Edmonton agencies have launched a laptop drive to put computers into the hands of those who need it, as the pandemic increasingly drives social connection to the digital world.

'If you do not have a computer, you are totally disconnected'

Officials at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers say it's more important than ever for the organization's youth to have online access. (Edmonton Mennonite Centre For Newcomers)

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.'"

Like countless community groups, C5 is increasingly shifting its operations online to help create virtual connections that respect rules of physical distance.

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

"This is not a luxury, it's a basic need," Ndamiye said. "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.

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

The C5 North East Community Hub hosts a daily digital meet up on Zoom for kids to read and hang out. (Corinne Saad)

It's the reason C5 and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers have launched a laptop drive to put hardware into the hands of those who don't have it.

Donated laptops and tablets will help clients from five agencies, including the Mennonite Centre and the Terra Centre for teen parents and pregnant moms, to access programs, keep up on school work and stay in touch with family and friends.

Donors fill out a form on the C5 website, then 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 about COVID-19, as well as enhance their 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 will miss out on with schools remaining 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, which also makes internet access imperative.

Staff at Edmonton Public Schools are contacting families to assess access levels. Resources such as printed 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.

At the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, online English classes will start on April 6 for about 900 people.

That is bound to create challenges, said executive director Ricki Justice. Parents and children will all need online access in households that often have just one cellphone.

"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 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.

"[Ndamiye] talked him through how to use it, what to do  — he's so excited," Saad said.
A C5 member excited to connect online with his new laptop. (Corinne Saad)


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca