Computers play a vital role in education, both at school and at home. But not all students have their own computer, which can be a difficult challenge to overcome.

That is where Keegan Nicholson comes in.

Nicholson, a junior at Loyola Sacred Heart High School, is the founder of Laptops for Students, a service that provides free refurbished laptops to students who cannot afford to buy their own.

“Basically what I do is I take laptops, whether they’re broken, whether they’re working, whether they’re new or old, and restore them into something I can give to another student to use for their education,” Nicholson said.

The laptops are donated by people in the Missoula community, he said.

“Lately I’ve been keeping it within Loyola, and just asking for donations from that community,” Nicholson said. “But I’m trying to take it a little bit further into the Missoula community.”

So much of daily life is migrating to the Internet, Nicholson said, and it is practically impossible not to have a computer these days.

“You can go to the library and use a computer,” he said. “But it’s a little bit more responsibility and a little bit more professional if you can have your own. I’m just looking to provide that to people with the talents I have with computer technology.”

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Nicholson’s interest in mechanics and technology began at an early age, he said, which eventually led him to laptop refurbishment.

“I really started getting into that when I was in eighth grade,” Nicholson said. “It’s so geeky, but sitting down in front of a laptop and being able to problem solve and figure it out is just kind of fun. I’ve gotten good at it through trial and error.”

When he started Laptops for Students, Nicholson said, he intended it to be a little project he would do during his senior year in high school. But now that he has seen its full potential, Nicholson is reluctant to let the program die after he graduates next year.

“I’d really like to leave this project in the hands of another student,” he said. “I don’t want it to be something that is just going to stop.”

Finding someone to take on Laptops for Students will be difficult, Nicholson said, but he is confident like-minded people in the community will see the need and rise to the challenge.

In fact, Nicholson envisions Laptops for Students growing into a grassroots-style network, with people across the nation operating their own little laptop refurbishment projects. His website, relaptops.org, could serve as a hub for inspiration and tips.

“I would not necessarily head the project, but I could be kind of like a mentor, in a way,” Nicholson said. “A resource.”

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Garth Flint, the technology coordinator for Loyola Sacred Heart High School, said the work Nicholson has put into this project has been significant.

“He has put a huge amount of effort into this,” Flint said. “He’s probably had at least 20 laptops come through here.”

Nicholson has a good grasp on technology, Flint said, and he puts those skills to great use when he refurbishes a laptop to help a fellow student.

“It’s very worthwhile,” Flint said. “I always have kids who can’t afford laptops and need them.”

Nicholson’s laptops come Internet-ready with Windows 7 and either OpenOffice or Word 2007 installed, activated and ready to go, Nicholson said. But if you are looking for a laptop for gaming, he said, you need to look somewhere else.

“They’re nothing special,” Nicholson said. “They’re basically just for school.”

Students interested in acquiring a free laptop can sign up on relaptops.org, as can anyone interested in learning how to launch their own version of Laptops for Students.

And if you have an old laptop you no longer need, Nicholson said, feel free to drop it off at the Loyola Foundation office at 300 Edith St., and he will make sure it is put to good use.

They take any and all laptops, he said, no matter the condition or quantity.

“If there’s a business that wants to make a larger donation and they don’t want to flood the foundation’s office, let me know,” Nicholson said. “I can send one of my friends down there with a pickup truck.”

Stephen Youmans is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern in the Missoulian newsroom.

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