Wilton Teen Leads Tablet/Computer Drive to Benefit Struggling Native American Community

Wilton's A.J. Preisano prepares a shipment of donated electronic devices to a Wyoming school on Jan. 16, 2021.

Wilton’s A.J. Preisano, a junior at Fairfield College Preparatory School, is leading an initiative to collect tablets, laptops and computers for needy students in an area particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wyoming’s Wind River reservation, one of the largest Native American reservations in the U.S. and home to the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes, has seen COVID infection rates over 10% of the population. Schools there remain closed, but remote learning resources on the reservation are scarce, and many students simply do not have the devices they need to participate in remote learning.

Preisano became aware of the students’ plight by Mike Evans, founder and executive director of Full Court Peace (FCP), a Norwalk-based non-profit that works to “unite, strengthen and educate… communities through basketball.” Evans was quite familiar with Wind River, a community steeped in basketball tradition and the subject of the PBS documentary film, Chiefs.

While Evans and FCP were helping to support the Wind River community in terms of repairs to basketball courts and other basic needs, he came to learn that students in the community desperately needed electronic devices for remote learning.

Evans put Preisano in touch with the Ethete, WY school district superintendent Michelle Hoffman and the district’s technology leader, who explained their students’ needs. “[Superintendent Hoffman] explained to me that students wouldn’t be able to learn without these devices,” Presiano told GMW.

On the district website, Hoffman acknowledged the lack of resources, telling the community, “Please know we are doing everything in our power to make sure students have the materials they need for their educational needs.”

Preisano took the lead to collect what was needed, starting with a collection at the Wilton Riding Club in late December 2020.

Forty devices were sent to the high school in mid-January, Preisano reported, and approximately 50 more are being prepared for shipment now. Preisano credited one Wilton resident (who wished to remain anonymous for this story) for arranging a donation of 30 Apple desktop computers.

GMW reached out to the superintendent for her reaction to the donations. “AJ’s work in collecting donated computers for our students is an awesome endeavor on his part… His work is greatly appreciated!” she said.

She added that the donated devices will not merely be handouts. In addition to enabling students to participate in virtual learning, “The computers will be used as incentives for student attendance… and student of the month honorings. This allows our district to do something special for our students that we normally couldn’t do for them.”

Preisano said he plans to continue the collection until more needs on the reservation are met, but he quickly added that those needs do not require cutting-edge technology. “As long as they can connect to Zoom classes, that’s fine,” said Preisano.

He suggested that the easiest way to donate a new device is to order the Amazon Fire 7 tablet, currently just $39.99.

Anyone interested in donating a Fire tablet, or other new or used devices, should contact Preisano by email. Monetary donations toward a device or shipping costs are also being accepted.

Preisano reflected on the uniqueness of his experience. “Connecting with a community I probably would never have experienced in my lifetime, to see what they don’t have in comparison to what we have, has been really extraordinary,” he said.

Preisano says the superintendent has invited him to visit when pandemic restrictions are loosened. He hopes to travel there this summer and envisions additional service work there during the trip.

Want to know more about this fascinating place? Watch this Wind River virtual museum visit, introduced by a local high student: