Like every 3-year-old, Rakaya McMullen enjoys colorful toys, especially one with sounds and lights.
Playing with them, however, can be challenging.
Rakaya, of Akron, is blind in her right eye and has low vision in her left; she has cerebral palsy with related mobility issues and developmental delays. She also experiences asthma attacks and seizures.
“She can’t walk or sit up, but she can laugh and play,” said her mother, Lorie. “Say hi to Dora,” she said to Rakaya, who smiled every time she was asked to play with the doll. Dora talks with the press of a button.
Recently, Lorie took Rakaya to one of the RePlay for Kids workshops to check out how volunteers adapt toys to help fit the needs of children with disabilities. Modifications might include a larger push button or a foot pedal to activate the toy’s electronics.
RePlay for Kids, a nonprofit corporation, this year received a grant from the Millennium Fund for Children that will help it continue to repair and adapt toys in 2013.
Lorie McMullen grabbed another toy at the informal workshop, held last week at the University of Akron’s Student Union, where the volunteers were mostly engineering students contributing their services.
“Push the button,” the mother said as she held a large red button. Rakaya pushed it and laughed when the pig grunted.
“Red is her favorite color, and she likes anything flashy,” Lorie McMullen said. “RePlay for Kids is amazing. These toys are great, because they help with fine-motor skills and help them learn cause and effect.
“You push the button and hear a sound. A normal toy would cost $40, and to adapt the toy for a disability would be $140, so it’s a great savings.”
About 40 volunteers spent a couple of hours repairing or adapting toys Tuesday. RePlay for Kids provides these services at no cost for other nonprofit organizations that provide medical, educational, or recreational resources for children with disabilities. Many of the toys are donated by the U.S. Marines’ Toys for Tots program, individual donors or by companies that help with the workshops.
In its grant request to the Millennium Fund, RePlay for Kids estimated it had saved partner organizations more than $200,000 in what it might cost to adapt toys.
Heidi Cressman, director of the women in engineering program at the University of Akron and herself a mechanical engineer and mathematician, said engineering is more than just math and science.
“It’s also about helping people. Engineering is more than working in a factory under dark lights in a grimy area,” she said. “I wanted to give women in engineering classes a hands-on-project to work on, an opportunity for them to see the connection between engineers and the big world.”
She encouraged her students to volunteer. A look across the room Tuesday found more young women than men behind the toys.
Engineering students learn
Hanna Reeser, 18, a biomedical engineering student, said she enjoyed her toy projects.
“It was interesting, I liked it. It was a little frustrating at first, but I learned more about circuit boards and how to read them.”
Kylee Eager, 18, a chemical engineering student, said it was overwhelming at first.
“Once I learned how to solder and finished one or two toys, it became easier and I knew what to expect.”
Anna Casella, 23, and Alena Casella, 18, sisters and both mechanical engineering students, had individual projects. Anna was trying to figure out what was wrong with the toy frog jamming on the guitar. “I don’t know yet. It seems to be working; I might just have to sew it up.”
Alena took her project to the soldering table when her plastic card device didn’t play a Happy Birthday tune as advertised on its cover. There she could work with a magnifying glass and the electrical tools she needed to troubleshoot.
Across the room you could hear a fire truck siren roar. Michael Minnick, 23, a fifth-year engineering student, said he just needed to activate a button to get it working. He also repaired a lullaby Gloworm, which lighted but didn’t play a song, and an anti-gravity black widow. The web runner had realistic leg movements that could run on walls, floors and even upside down. This was his third workshop working as a volunteer.
Some of the toys came with repair orders. Others demanded their own diagnostic tests.
Travis Wright, 21, a senior in engineering, said it didn’t take him long to figure out a toy car radio, but a toy monkey baffled him. “I can’t figure out for the life of me what is wrong with this monkey. I can’t keep it consistent. The tail just keeps moving all over the place.”
The assistant director of RePlay for Kids, Natalie Wadega, said not all of the toys can be repaired, but they try to fix what they can.
“We take mainstream-operated toys and adapt them for children with disabilities by putting a jack on the end of a cord to make it accessible for them to play with.”
This year the nonprofit organization will complete 46 workshops compared to 34 last year and will have 600 toys to distribute.
RePlay for Kids has been hosting informal toy workshops since 1994. In 1999, it formally was established as a nonprofit corporation to further increase the productivity of the toy repairs and modification efforts.
“We are getting them ready for Dec. 6, where 21 different nonprofit organizations will come to pick up toys to use them for therapy,” Wadega said. “It’s by invitation only, and only open to nonprofit organizations, because they don’t have enough resources.”
For more information on RePlay for Kids, go to www.replayforkids.org or call 330-721-8281.
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.