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Bay Area Proud

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Turning Trash Into Teachers' Treasures

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Mary Simon knew that her idea for a education non profit would be a hit. Twenty years of success have proven her right. (Published Thursday, Dec 5, 2013)

    Mary Simon was a second grade teacher with a love of math and science, and a talent for scavenging.

    "I am a very good scrounger," Mary says, recalling how twenty years ago she used to ask local businesses for whatever surplus materials they had available. Whether it was strips of wire, plastic pen casings, or scraps of foam or rubber, it didn't matter. Mary would take it all.

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    "These surplus materials," Mary says, "are so cool and so weird and wacky and different. It gets you excited thinking about what they could be."

    What Mary would make them into were hands-on math and science projects for her students.

    "Kids love math and science when it is taught well," Mary says.

    Mary got so good at the scrounging and project creation, she eventually decided that she decided to "turn pro" starting her own non profit, and the Resource Area For Teaching, or RAFT, was born.

    "I decided that I really wanted to make an impact with kids not just in my own classroom, but supporting kids and giving them the things I had fallen in love with."

    Mary says she was always confident her non profit would be a big hit. "I knew what teachers needed," Mary says, "having been a teacher and scrounged myself. And I knew that I had a little bit of a knack for seeing something of what could be."

    What RAFT has ended up being is huge. Operating with a $3.4 million budget, RAFT's staff of 40 works with 9,000 volunteers every year to transform more than 100,000 cubic feet of surplus business materials into engaging project-based math and science activities.

    More than 8,000 teachers in the South Bay and Peninsula are members of RAFT, using the materials to teach more than 600,000 students. Teachers can come to RAFT's store in San Jose to purchase either the raw materials Mary's team has scrounged ($2.50 per bag) to create projects of their own or buy ones the RAFT team has already created. Examples of those include a hovercraft made from a balloon, CD, and water bottle top and a musical instrument made from a cardboard tube and a rubber glove.

    Either way, Mary says, if the material helps a student get excited about learning, it's a great thing. "There’s nothing more powerful for a teacher than to see the kids respond positively. You know it feeds your soul when you see that.