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Student’s nonprofit aims to bridge digital divide

Anyone who doubts that one person can change the world needs to meet Franny Millen. The Bailey Middle eighth-grader is only 13 but she’s already created her own nonprofit that is closing the digital divide in Davidson and Cornelius.

The idea for Eliminate the Digital Divide (E2D) began, last fall, when she realized that many students in her classroom didn’t have home computers to look up information on the internet or type reports. Instead, they had to go to the library or find another way to complete their work — an imperfect solution.

“The library is closed on some days or it might be far away for some families,” said Franny. “Many of the kids would turn in handwritten reports. Others would not get all the information so the report wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be.”

She decided all families should have access to digital technology in their homes. With her family’s support, Franny engaged the community, educational institutions, businesses and civic leadership in conversations about the inequities that she saw.

“When I started E2D, I was nervous about asking for donations and grants because I didn’t know if people would give the money we needed,” said Franny.

But she had some early backing that helped, including the mayor of Davidson.

“Mayor John Woods was on board from the start. As we spoke with more and more people, they became aware of the issue and started to see how fixable the problem was,” said Franny. “They got really excited and joined in to help us.”

She was pleasantly surprised. The Town of Davidson, the Ada Jenkins Center and Davidson College agreed to support her organization. MI-Connection offered to wire recipients homes at no cost. Then provide clients with a free first year of Internet connectivity, followed by a discount on service.

Her goal was to provide families with laptops, bandwidth, training, technical support and educational software. She designed a complete strategy. Eligible families would be identified by the school and apply for the computer package through the Ada Jenkins Center. The basic computer training would be mandatory and taught by Davidson College students. Families would contribute a small fee of $10 a month for a year. E2D would subsidize the balance of the overall package so the families could own the laptops at the end of the year.

The initial goal was to raise $15,000 to help 50 families from Davidson Elementary. Since E2D started in January, it has raised $40,000 and received more than 700 donated laptops. Lowe’s announced its donation of 500 laptops at a press event Aug. 21.

“In today’s world for many youth it is all about them, but for this young lady it is all about others,” said Joan Higginbotham, Lowe’s director of community relations. “We wanted to be a part of this wonderful effort.

The computer delivery drive also began on Aug. 21. Davidson College students delivered laptops and helped families set them up so they would be ready to use them for the first day of school. Davidson students will also provide ongoing technical support and continuing education classes for the students and their families at the Ada Jenkins Center.

“It is great to give families access to technology but it is important to know how to use it. That is where we come in,” said Kathryn Kemp, a Davidson College student. “Helping to organize this effort has been eye-opening.”

E2D has now secured enough funding and resources to expand its reach. It will support families from Davidson Elementary, J.V. Washam Elementary, Bailey Middle and Hough High. Overall, E2D will help nearly 500 families in the towns of Davidson and Cornelius. Franny has adjusted her goal upward.

“I want to expand it past Davidson and Cornelius and get rid of the digital divide for everyone,” said Franny. “It exists in so many places, so I want to keep going.”

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