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Nonprofit’s donates 400 laptops to help students stay on track as schools plan to go online

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If parents wanted to claim a free laptop Wednesday from the Houston nonprofit Comp-U-Dopt, they had to move at gigahertz speed.

Within one minute of posting its request form at noon, all 60 of Comp-U-Dopt’s available computers were accounted for — a testament to the massive need for at-home technology amid ongoing school closures.

“I wish I could get out and just hug them,” said Wendy Montiel, who drove about 30 minutes Wednesday to pick up a coveted laptop for her son Preston, a first-grader attending Westchase Classical Academy. “It will mean a lot for him because he had a tablet, but it hasn’t been working. He’s doing his classwork, and he gets frustrated because it freezes on him.”

Over the past 13 years, Comp-U-Dopt has delivered about 15,000 computers to Houston-area children, helping them continue their studies. Now, with the novel coronavirus pandemic causing the cancellation of in-person classes through at least mid-April, the small nonprofit faces dwindling inventory and huge demand fueled by educators alerting parents about the organization.

Comp-U-Dopt officials said they have about 300 computers remaining, with plans to give away 60 per day. The nonprofit’s leaders said they will begin accepting laptop donations from individuals Thursday, while also working with corporations to identify idle computers that can be refurbished quickly and distributed to families in need.

“We’ve had an overwhelming demand from school districts, from parents, from people who just want to help,” Comp-U-Dopt Chief of Staff Colin Dempsey said. “We’re going to try to do this for about four to five more days, until we run out of inventory, but we’re soliciting our donors and companies. I think people are willing to help, but it’s just a matter of having computers available.”

As districts across the region are pledging to offer distance learning opportunities amid weeks-long closures, the need for computers and internet service has become more essential for families. About one-in-eight Houston households does not have a computer, tablet or smartphone, while one-in-four households lacks broadband internet access, according to U.S. Census survey data.

In recent years, Comp-U-Dopt distributed about 3,000 pieces of refurbished hardware annually through partnerships with districts and other nonprofits, offering extensive training on the devices. Nearly all computers came from corporate partners, who receive a tax credit and do not have to pay for recycling.

The pandemic, however, shifted Comp-U-Dopt’s approach this week. The nonprofit created a web page Tuesday where parents can sign up to receive a free laptop. Each day, the first 60 families to complete the form posted at noon are notified that they can pick up a computer the following day.

Three of the nonprofit’s employees offered curbside laptop delivery Wednesday at their Airline Drive warehouse, with no questions asked other than the customer’s name.

Joseph and Roxanne Torres, whose son and daughter attend KIPP Explore Academy on Houston’s east side, were considering whether to buy a laptop after finding their iPhones did not adequately support their children’s academic needs. The purchase would have strained their family budget, though, with Joseph losing work hours from his job as a pipefitter at local refineries.

“We’re going to be homeschooling for the next couple weeks or months or the foreseeable future. It’s not free-time,” Roxanne Torres said after collecting a Comp-U-Dopt laptop. “It’s still a time to learn.”

Delora North, an engineering technician for Harris County, said the free laptop will help keep her kindergarten daughter, Daily, occupied during the extended break. North expects she will have to bring Daily to her office during work hours.

“You do flashcards at home, but that stuff gets old after a while,” North said as Daily impishly tried to climb into a front seat. “You can only come up with so many fun little ideas before they’re bored and don’t want to learn it anymore. She’s wanting to learn, she’s wanting to do things, and I need something to help me keep up because I’ve been out of school for 20 years.”

Comp-U-Dopt officials said they are optimistic about increasing their laptop inventory after getting calls Wednesday from about 100 individuals and a few multinational companies interested in donating hardware. The nonprofit’s leaders said they have the staff and technology to quickly erase hard drives and distribute computers.

“I think we will be overwhelmed with way more than we anticipate,” Comp-U-Dopt CEO Megan Steckly said. “I think people are looking for good news.”

jacob.carpenter@chron.com

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