This story is part of "We Care Montclair," a special celebration of groups and individuals working to help the Montclair community. See more stories in the special "We Care Montclair" section inserted into the April 29 edition of Montclair Local.

For Montclair Local

In the pandemic, with Montclair schools on entirely remote learning for more than a year, a long-standing reality took on new relevance — not everyone has an extra laptop or desktop computer lying around for classwork and homework. It’s an issue the school system worked to address, distributing more than 1,300 Chromebooks to families.

And it’s a concern Montclair resident Jon Bonesteel and Laptop Upcycle have been tackling for years, taking cast-aside laptops, revamping them and giving them away to students and others who can make use of them.

Laptop Upcycle’s origin story is one of sheer happenstance. Four years ago, Bonesteel was running a makerspace — a gathering of people working on DIY projects — called “Hack & Craft” with friends. They tinkered with projects, mending, fixing or building electronics and other goods. During that time, they learned of a student in need of a working laptop for homework. The makers set out to solve the student’s dilemma their way — assembling what they had to make what was needed. 

“At our makerspace, we happened to have a few extra [laptops] sitting around,” Bonesteel said. The team worked together to provide a workable machine that they ultimately provided to the student. When it went out the door, it was a clean, revived computer, ready to assist its new owner. 

That first laptop revamp and giveaway lit a spark, and things grew from there.

“We thought that this is probably a bigger issue and problem locally [and] that there were a lot of kids that needed the technology tools to do their homework at home,” Bonesteel said. In response, the team ultimately decided to transition the space to a full-on laptop upcycling space.  

Digital divide issues extend nationwide. A Pew Research Center poll last year found 43% of lower-income students had to do their homework on smartphones. New Jersey only recently proclaimed the digital divide closed by its own accounting — that every student identified as in need was provided with a device that could be used for schoolwork, though many of those devices have limitations in what applications they can run and what resources they can support.

Bonesteel sees the Montclair district’s own Chromebook distribution as a great move to help bridge the digital divide, and something Laptop Upcycle can build on.

“We’re a little different in that when we give a laptop to a young adult, it’s theirs to keep,” he said. “They have the pride of ownership, and they can do whatever they want on it in addition to their schoolwork.” 

His program can also provide laptops to nonprofits — and recently offered to do so for Montclair Local Nonprofit News (Editor’s note: Montclair Local accepted seven laptops from Laptop Upcycle this month).

Laptops and other technology tools come to the program from various sources. In some cases, an individual donor might be looking to offload a computer that’s no longer in use, or a corporate donor might be overhauling and upgrading office tech. Bonesteel says most newer technology items can be used to assist Laptop Upcycle in its efforts.

When a machine arrives, one of the first things Bonesteel and his army of volunteers, often high school students, do is clean the hard drive to ensure the prior user’s data is completely erased. “We connect [the machine] to our network, which has some data destruction tools that securely write ones and zeros on top of the data [several] times to make sure anything that was there is gone,” he said.

From there, student volunteers usually set to work cleaning, repairing, restoring and testing the machines. For a machine to be eligible for a second life, it must have a working front-facing camera and a working keyboard and ports. It must have a working battery life of at least 90 minutes. Each machine that goes through the process and passes muster receives a freshly installed operating system.

The program recently celebrated some of those volunteers in announcements about their contributions. Max Waitz, for instance, is an EMT, a chess tutor, an ultimate Frisbee player and coach, and a Laptop Upcycle volunteer who logged more than 700 hours with the project over the last few years.

“In the summer of 2018, Max arrived with little experience in refurbishing laptops. He started with learning to wipe data, install new software and test laptops, and soon moved on to refurbishing and learning about computer hardware, and bringing in donated laptops and accessories,” the program said.

He also operates an eBay store on Laptop Upcycle’s behalf, and helped to raise more than $3,000 to purchase the parts and pieces needed to refurbish donated laptops. 

“It’s cool and I get to solve puzzles figuring out technical issues,” Waitz said in a message provided by the group. “I get to choose the projects I like to work on and watch the shelves fill up with laptops that are ready to be handed out. I work with a rotating group of volunteers who are all great people, including some Montclair High School friends, so it’s a safe, productive place to see them.” 

A friend of Waitz’s, Alex Veldran, a junior at Montclair High School, was looking for a way to increase his volunteer hours for his National Honor Society application and help other students without risking COVID-19 exposure to himself or his family. He’d previously interned with Laptop Upcycle in 2019, so he revisited the project, seeking a way to help.

Veldran created a flyer for his neighbors, and emailed and texted family, friends and his teammates on the Montclair High School baseball team, seeking donations to the program. And this winter, he added a $100 donation to his collection of three laptops and three keyboards by shoveling snow. He also collected power adapters, headphones and a pair of laptop backpacks.

“When I asked for laptops, some people were concerned about how safe it was because of their data,” Veldran said. “Because of my experience in the lab, I could assure them that it was safe. Most people I talked to thought this was a great idea, especially when our whole lives are online.”

Since the first machine left the program 3½ years ago, Bonesteel said, more than 850 laptops have gone through the program. Initially, students come to the program through its website to request technology. Once their eligibility is confirmed through a note or free lunch qualification, Laptop Upcycle provides them with the gear.

Students can call on Laptop Upcycle if required even after the machine leaves. Students can also replace damaged or faulty equipment for free.

“We tell them ‘Please don’t drink or do anything bad to it,’” Bonesteel said. “But if you do and you have a mistake, we’re going to support you going forward.”

The program has also extended its reach beyond Montclair, assisting technology needs in neighboring towns and as far away as Detroit in one instance. Bonesteel, who was set to take a road trip from Montclair to Michigan, was contacted by a mother looking for a laptop for her special needs child, and because he would be driving nearby, he was able to hand off a laptop the family could use.

Going forward, Bonesteel says, the wish list includes more corporate donors and sponsors and more volunteers.