More than a year ago, Toronto real estate broker Ara Mamourian shouldered the responsibility of making sure students at a Regent Park elementary and middle school had supplies needed to learn remotely by buying dozens of them computers.
This week, he was called on to do it again. In just over 24 hours, Mamourian managed to solicit $26,000 in donations from his network through social media posts Tuesday.
With the money, he ordered 60 refurbished Chromebook laptops for students at Regent Park’s Nelson Mandela Park Public School and is about to order 200 more for kids at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, a Thorncliffe Park kindergarten.
So many students — and people, in general — don’t have their own computers, Mamourian said, he is now in the process of setting up a non-profit to address technological inequity.
While the Toronto District School Board has enough devices for all its students, the computers the board lends them must be returned once in-person classes resume, a spokesperson told the Star. Because of how quick schools had to shift online, not every student who needs a laptop has gotten one yet.
That’s where Mamourian comes in. He’s been able to get laptops in the hands of some students quicker than the board can — plus families that receive the computers get to keep them forever.
When online learning started in 2020, Rachel DiSaia, a parent and school council chair at Nelson Mandela Park, reached out to Mamourian for help — knowing he had always been willing to lend a hand to those in need. There were “a number of device requests that were left unfulfilled” at the school, DiSaia told him, meaning kids wouldn’t have laptops to learn on.
“It immediately broke my heart,” said Mamourian. “I thought it was insane that some kids don’t have something as simple as a device that we have 10 of in my house. I just started donating directly. I don’t have a charity; I wasn’t getting any kind of charitable receipt. I quietly continued to do that.”
Mamourian donated dozens of laptops to students throughout the year. These gifts helped a great deal, DiSaia told the Star. But when remote learning returned this week, so did the problem — new students had since joined the school and 60 of them needed laptops.
“Two days ago, Rachel (DiSaia) said the device situation was a problem again, and it seemed to be an even bigger problem now,” said Mamourian. “I put it out there on my Instagram story. I said, ‘We need 60 devices as soon as possible, that’s $6,000. I’ve been doing this myself for a year or so, I could really use some help this round.’”
Toronto broker Ken McLachlan responded immediately, offering to pay the entire $6,000 himself.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s not even 7 a.m. yet, let’s see what else we can do here,’” said Mamourian, knowing Nelson Mandela Park couldn’t be the only school in need.
“I kept pushing it, put in on Facebook, LinkedIn. All of a sudden, my email inbox is full of money transfers, from as little as $100 to $2,000. Now we’re just over $26,000, which is mind-blowing.”
Mamourian wasn’t just getting donations, he was getting intel, too — people were letting him know which schools and families needed the most help. That’s how he found out 200 Fraser Mustard kindergarteners needed laptops.
They’ll all soon be getting them, thanks to the money Mamourian raised.
While Mamourian’s efforts are lauded by parents and community members, they are a reminder of the gulf in access to educational necessities between some families and schools — requests for laptops aren’t coming in from Leaside schools, for example, Mamourian said.
“I’m actually super pissed that people have to do this sort of thing,” said Mamourian. “It sucks that it has to be done. In 2022, technology is at the same level as housing. It’s not a luxury. This world will completely pass you by if you don’t have access to a device to get online.”
The TDSB has never reached out to Mamourian, he said, despite his donations over the past year and recent fundraising. But he isn’t interested in working in conjunction with them or any specific school, instead operating outside the system to provide a permanent solution to lack of computer access.
“I would love if this could be fixed at a systemic level,” said DiSaia. “Because there is inequity, there are some schools where every kid was issued a device at the start of the year, no questions asked, but that’s not what happened at our school.”
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said while not every student has been given a device yet, there are enough for all, and those who need one will eventually receive it.
“As you can imagine, when we’re told on Monday we’re pivoting Canada’s largest school system to remote learning, it does take some time to get those devices out,” said Bird.
Meantime, Bird said teachers will be reaching out to families of students without devices to provide asynchronous work until they get laptops. And while donations are always welcome, he said, when it comes to remote learning, “we don’t need any additional devices because we do have enough at the TDSB.”
“If families in general need laptops, whether for remote learning or something else, I’m sure that’s welcome,” said Bird. “But I want to make sure our parents know, our community knows, we have made substantial investments in it — more than 140,000 devices purchased over the last two years.”