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Community involvement

Tackling the digital divide

March 15, 2022

In our hyper-connected world, it’s hard enough for students to keep up with their peers if they don’t have access to a home computer. Young people need devices to practice digital skills, whether they’re researching a paper, learning to code or connecting with classmates. But the pandemic deepened the digital divide between those with and without access to devices. As lockdowns forced people to rely on screens for education, tens of thousands of families who couldn’t afford enough devices scrambled to ensure their children could attend virtual school in the first place.

Meanwhile, corporations were trying to figure out what to do with equipment that were sitting in empty office buildings across the country.

Out of this need came the CEO Pledge, a campaign to persuade business leaders to donate their used devices to schools and underserved Canadians. Supported by Computers for Success Canada (CFSC-OPEC), a federally funded non-profit, the CFS+ program also hires young people as paid interns to refurbish the computers before distributing them. 

Desjardins joined the pledge External link. This link will open in a new window., committing to donate 3,000 laptops to non-profit organizations in Ontario and Quebec in 2022.  

“To give back is part of our culture,” said Johanne Duhaime, Desjardins executive vice president of information technology. “Here was an opportunity, one, to give back to the community and two, to be able to shape the talent of the future.”

The CFS+ program distributes between 70,000 to 100,000 devices annually. It has refurbished 1.8 million devices including desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets and printers since its inception 27 years ago, drastically reducing e-waste. The donated devices are wiped to follow the highest security standards and donated to underserved communities including schools, low-income families, libraries, not for profits, refugees and students from Indigenous communities.

But demand for devices soared during the pandemic, said Julie Brouard, CFSC-OPEC’s manager of communications, HR and partnerships.

“People started to work from home and kids had to go to school from home,” she said. “A lot of families didn’t have two devices or any devices for the kids to do school from home.”

At the same time, there was a shortage of donations due to delayed device renewals, working from home and global procurement problems.

“With many working from home, there was no one in offices to let us know whether they had surplus computers to donate,” said Marie DeLuca, Senior Manager, Sales & Marketing at Renewed Computer Technology of Ontario (RCT), the organization distributing the devices in Ontario. “With the CEO Pledge, we’ve been able to keep up with the demand for computers. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know where we’d be donation wise this year.” 

More devices donated mean more young people can be hired to learn how to refurbish the computers, an invaluable learning experience. The internships have an impact far beyond training, said Maryse Lavoie, executive director of Ordinateurs pour les Écoles du Québec (OPEC), the organization distributing and refurbishing devices in Quebec.

“I still remember a young man telling me, with tears in his eyes, he was feeling self-confident for the first time,” Lavoie said, adding the young man had just been given the responsibility to train new recruits.

She recalled another youth who felt valued because he could set up and repair his friends’ computers, and another youth with autism who learned more autonomy and how to manage her finances over the course of the internship.

Along with providing devices to underserved communities and giving a second life to Desjardins’ laptops – a win for the circular economy and the cooperative’s goal of improved sustainability – Desjardins’ Duhaime was excited about the internship program’s potential to create a spark of interest in IT among young people.

“Technology is the future,” she said. “The pandemic has really shown us to what extent IT can have an important contribution to the success of organizations.”

Duhaime called on all CEOs to participate in the pledge to help equip children to develop the digital mindset that will be so important to their futures.  

“I think organizations have a responsibility to provide to the community, to give back,” she said.