Your Schools

CMS families have big plans for helping schools

Key Resale started with a vision and a yard sale. Now five Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools moms are trying to launch a thrift shop that could pump money into schools across the county.

E2D, or Ending the Digital Divide, started with a seventh-grader’s question about kids who don’t have computers at home. Now the family-run nonprofit is growing beyond its Davidson roots and garnering national recognition.

As CMS enters a month that will be filled with wrangling over money, leadership and student assignment, the two groups provide a refreshing glimpse of another side of public engagement: families who are quietly working to give students a better shot at success.

Key Resale and E2D mix icons of grass-roots fundraising – selling castoff clothes and setting up sidewalk lemonade stands – and amp them up with powerful partnerships.

And both strive to bridge the economic gaps that so often split the county.

“I always say we’re a really great nexus between the haves and the have-nots,” says Barbara Jessie-Black of Chapel Hill’s PTA Thrift Shop, the model for Charlotte’s Key Resale.

On Monday, Key Resale founder Michelle Estrada Abels will make a three-minute pitch to the judges and audience of SEED20, a competition for innovations that tackle social issues in Charlotte, in hopes of winning up to $20,000 for a permanent home. Jessie-Black will be there rooting for her.

“I’m very excited for her,” Jessie-Black said after Key Resale was selected for the Top 10 SEED20 contestants. “She’s going to succeed.”

Yard sale on steroids

Abels started paying attention to CMS about six years ago, during another period of turmoil.

In the depths of the recession CMS was closing schools. Abels, whose son hadn’t reached school age, learned about the struggles of high-poverty schools that had been abandoned by middle-class families.

Abels said she could sympathize with both groups. The daughter of a Panamanian mother and a Mexican-American father, she grew up without much money. But as a middle-class, stay-home mother, she didn’t want her son going to a failing school, either.

Her activism in student assignment led to an idea that merged her worlds: Where she once shopped at thrift stores out of necessity, she now finds it fun. What if PTA parents from across the county teamed up to create a store that sold secondhand items to benefit all schools?

That’s not as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Thrift Shop started in 1952 with a small sales room. Over the decades, it has grown to encompass two stores that bring in $1.6 million a year. Proceeds are distributed to 19 schools, including district and charter schools.

Abels and Debbie Rubenstein, a friend and active CMS parent, made a road trip last spring and came back “giddy” at the prospect of replicating such an effort here. They rounded up three more moms as board members: Jocelyn Chrisley; Nina Toth, who has retail management experience; and Monica Okrah, who has an MBA from Harvard University.

They chose the name Key Resale based on George Washington Carver’s quote: “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” They incorporated as a nonprofit group, created a website and got a room for donations at Commonwealth United Methodist Church. So far they’ve raised about $5,000 selling donated items online and in four yard sales.

Abels has a long-term vision of five stores, with proceeds going to all 168 schools in CMS. Some already have PTAs with six-figure budgets while others have none at all. The Key plan would give high-poverty schools a larger share, but everyone comes together to raise donations, volunteer, shop and share in the benefits.

For starters, though, the crew has its eye on one retail property on Monroe Road and a plan to target schools in the Garinger, East Mecklenburg and Myers Park high school zones. Even before Monday’s judging, participation in SEED20 is raising the group’s visibility with the region’s donors and social activists.

Abels, who now has a preschool daughter and a son at Cotswold Elementary, says the idea of uniting to support CMS has the power to create something that can last decades.

“We need to have strong public schools,” she said. “I want my son to (grow up and ) come back here with good schools.”

Laptops and lemonade

The Millen-Keeley family is about three years further down the road. In 2013, Franny Millen, a student at Bailey Middle School, remarked on how much she used her computer for homework and asked how students without digital access could keep up.

Her family created E3D – Eliminate Davidson’s Digital Divide – with support from the town of Davidson, Davidson College and the Ada Jenkins Center and a goal of providing computers to about 50 Davidson Elementary students who didn’t have Internet access at home.

That summer, Millen kids and others raised more than $3,000 at lemonade stands around town.

A donation of 500 reconditioned laptops from Lowe’s home improvement more than met the need at Davidson Elementary, and led the group to broaden its scope as E2D. Over the past three years, Lowe’s has kept donating, and E2D has distributed laptops to students in Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville. The group also sets families up with low-cost Internet service and recruits Davidson College students to teach digital literacy.

Pat Millen, a former sports marketing consultant, now volunteers full time for E2D, while Eileen Keeley works for Davidson College. Franny and her older brother Paddy are both students at Hough High, while younger brother Sam is at Davidson Elementary. The entire family is involved, as national accolades roll in. The National League of Cities honored E2D, and Paddy Millen spoke this week at a Consortium for School Networking symposium in Washington, D.C.

Now things are ready to escalate. The annual May lemonade stand fundraiser is expanding to schools and neighborhoods across Mecklenburg County. E2D provided laptops to 20 students each at West Mecklenburg, West Charlotte, Vance, Harding and Garinger high schools this fall, and has visions of much broader efforts at those schools. The key to expansion is more donated laptops.

“Believe it or not, I need computers more than I need money,” Pat Millen said. Superintendent Ann Clark recently contacted leaders of some of Charlotte’s largest companies urging them to consider donating to E2D.

More partners sought

Key Resale accepts donations of anything that could sell in a thrift shop and welcomes volunteers, including youth, to help with sorting and selling. Email for details; follow the group on Facebook or Twitter (@KeyResale) for updates.

E2D takes donations at its website,, or E2D Inc., P.O. Box 1299, Davidson, NC 28036. For more information, including volunteer opportunities, contact Vivian Nieves at