There’s little debate that proficiency in computer technology is critical for the 21st century, but what about those students in elementary through college who have no day-to-day access to computers?
Or veterans seeking jobs with more companies requiring online applications?
And this reality lay heavy on the heart of Dwayne Baker, an Army veteran and 10-year resident of Ahwatukee.
Rather than merely shake his head over the digital divide between those able to afford personal laptops and computers – or even have access to one in their home – and those without, he acted on his concern.
He and wife Kay and began donating laptops to deserving, needy students and veterans while bankrolling the donations entirely on their own.
After two years of this largesse, he came upon Brenda Powell, another local resident who at the time was a guidance counselor at Camelback Mountain High School in the Phoenix Union High School District.
In that position, her second career after a successful run in corporate sales, she saw how disadvantaged those students were who didn’t have regular access to computers – how it affected their grades, even their classroom participation.
Baker and Powell’s association continued, and along her husband, Gregory A. Powell, the two couples formed Laptops 4 Learning (L4L), a nonprofit that’s hitting the ground running.
“I had a student who was falling behind in credits for graduation. He needed to go to an online credit recovery school, but of course, that required he have a laptop to help him pursue this after school and weekends,” said Powell, now executive director of L4L.
It was then she began phoning contacts, hoping to locate someone to donate a laptop to help this student. Through connections, she came across Dwayne Baker and gave him a call.
“He was really responsive and ready to help. But he was interested in meeting the student personally, not only to hand him the laptop, but to encourage him and mentor him, and I was really touched by that,” she recalled.
In 2017, Baker, an entrepreneur who once owned an aerospace engineering firm, saw the need for expanding his outreach but couldn’t do so by delving further into the family funds.
“In my school alone, Camelback High School, he donated 30 laptops to students,” said Powell, remarking that of the 28,000 students in the district’s 15 high schools, 70 percent are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program – indicating a financially-strapped population.
Powell said when Baker told her his dream of expanding by establishing a nonprofit and seeking donations, he wasn’t aware she was planning to retire at year’s end.
It became apparent this was the core group that would propel Laptops 4 Learning to another level.
Gregory Powell became director of program development, while Dwayne Baker is board chair.
A unique aspect of Laptops 4 Learning is what Brenda Powell calls “having some skin in the game.”
Students or veterans who apply for a laptop must solicit $125 in tax-deductible donations. Powell says some community college students pay the amount themselves, while others approach family members, friends and church and civic groups.
For many low-income students, amassing this sum can appear to be an enormous obstacle.
But even then, there are ways.
“We were able to get a $500 donation, and at the time we had 81 students sign up online for a laptop. So, we said, ‘Now you’re signed up, go out and solicit funds, and the first 20 students who get $25 in donations, we’ll match it.’ This really helped incentivize them to get out there,” she said.
“There is a population segment for whom even $25 is huge. That’s why we wanted to set up the opportunity,” said Powell. “There’s a greater sense of ownership when you know you’ve put in the work to get your own laptop.”
At a recent golf fundraiser at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, two students spoke as to how the laptops they’d received helped change their lives.
“Before I received the laptop, I stayed after school in the library to complete projects, do research and write essays. I stayed until closing time and would get home at 5:30. On days where I couldn’t finish, I’d come to school at seven in the morning to try and complete my work. When I got the laptop, I was excited; it meant I wouldn’t have to be at school before or after classes for longer than needed. Getting this laptop meant I would finish work at home, and on days I had a lot of school work, I could complete it at night,” said Kimberly Silva, 16.
“When I received this laptop, it helped not only me, but my siblings as well; when I’m not using it, my brothers use it. My younger brother is taking his first AP class and needs to use a computer for this class,” she added. “My older brother takes virtual classes; he’s only given the time in class to work. Had I not been given this laptop my older brother would have only a limited time to complete the assignments. When I see them using the laptop, I always feel glad that there are people who are willing to help others, to help improve their lives.”
Ceasarina Paul, who worked to raise the $125 needed for her laptop, also shared her story at the fundraiser.
“When Mrs. Powell told me all we had to do was get $125 in donations, I knew it was something I had to take advantage of, and as soon as I got my username and password for my L4L info, I started to ask donations from family members and others,” she said. “It made me really happy because I’ve been praying for a laptop, and I knew God answered my prayers. I have a job at Del Taco, and I also donated $25 to myself.”
Having her own laptop helped her succeed in last summer’s online classes and additionally assist her mother with her job search.
“I was able to fill out job applications for my mom because she’s been out of work for a while now. And my laptop works great, I take it everywhere with me, and whenever I need to turn in an assignment online, my laptop comes in handy. I’m very grateful that I was able to get a laptop, I’m the most grateful person on earth because I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to buy a laptop for college in the future,” said Ceasarina, a senior who plans to major in nursing.
These stories from L4L recipients thrill the heart of co-founder Dwayne Baker, who has three children, two of them residing in Ahwatukee and the oldest in Chandler.
He explained the backstory of how L4L came into existence.
“An engineer who worked for me was a genius at fixing things, and I saw him rebuilding a computer. He said that he liked to do this for veterans to help them find work. I asked him if I could have one to give it to a child at an event I was speaking at that evening. When I gave away that computer, the boy that got it was so grateful that I promised the rest of the group of boys each a laptop of their own,” he said, noting he was aware they were all struggling in school.
“My wife, Kay, and mother, Birdie, were there with me when I presented the seven computers. Kay looked at my mom and my mom said, ‘I know you’re not going to try to get away with not giving computers to the girls.’ I looked out at the class and saw those girls’ faces and said, ‘Computers for everyone.’ And Laptops 4 Learning was formed,” he laughed.
Baker said, “To date, we’ve given away over 300 laptops. The need for the laptops became greater than we could handle on our own, so we decided to apply to become a 501 (c)(3) and solicit donations to help us help more kids.”
Now, he says, the L4L goal is to “get one to every student in the greater Phoenix valley, and then to expand across the country to level the playing field so every veteran and student has a chance to compete.”
This year, Baker and Powell are hitting the speaker’s circuit in search of people who can help. “We welcome any opportunity to speak before groups....It gives us the opportunity to help more students and veterans,” said Powell.
For further information, to donate, or to reserve a speaker: Laptops4Learning.com.