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Adapted toys make play more fun for children with disabilities

12/26/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

Amy Sonntag, representing Akron Children’s Hospital, collected toys to take back to children with disabilities including an adapted Cookie Monster doll during RePlay for Kids’ giveaway event Dec. 5.
Adapted Elmo dolls were among the gifts RePlay for Kids gave to area organizations serving children with disabilities Dec. 5.
Children with disabilities will be able to play with mummies, skeletons and Frankenstein dolls, which were adapted by RePlay for Kids’ volunteers and given away to partner agencies.
Photo courtesy of RePlay for Kids
VALLEY VIEW — Several Akron organizations that provide services to children with disabilities were recipients at RePlay for Kids’ sixth annual adapted toy giveaway Dec. 5.

The Summit County Board of Developmental Disabilities (SCBDD), United Disability Services (UDS) of Akron, Hattie Larlham Foundation and Akron Children’s Hospital were among partner agencies benefitting from the event, which was held at the Educational Service Center of Cuyahoga County.

RePlay for Kids donated more than 800 new toys to its partners through the event, which included 26 area organizations from nine counties, according to Natalie Wardega, RePlay for Kids’ assistant director.

UDS wasn’t able to send a representative to collect toys at the giveaway event, and they were expecting RePlay for Kids to make a special trip to donate 35 adapted toys, according to Sheila Svoboda, supervisor of UDS’ Toy and Resource Center. The gifts will be put to use in the toy lending resource center, which has a room specifically for adapted toys. UDS does not have a budget to purchase adapted toys currently, so RePlay for Kids is its main source of the items, said Svoboda.

People purchase low-cost memberships to use the UDS center, which houses somewhere between 750 and 1,000 adapted toys among its resources, according to center officials. The SCBDD gives out some vouchers to pay for memberships, Svoboda added.

Besides donating toys, RePlay also offers a service in repairing the toys used by children with disabilities at UDS, she said. Every quarter, they pick up damaged toys and repair what they can, she noted.

“If we didn’t have RePlay, those toys would get broken, and we wouldn’t have anyone who knew how to repair them,” she said.

RePlay for Kids is the only organization of its kind in Northeast Ohio, providing free repairs of toys and assistive devices and giving away adapted toys to agencies that serve children with disabilities, according to organization officials. The roots of the organization are tied to its president, Bill Memberg, a biomedical engineer at Case Western Reserve University, who answered a newspaper advertisement seeking a volunteer to repair toys for children with disabilities, according to organization officials.

At first, the organization held one or two informal repair workshops a year, in which a group of engineers and friends got together to repair and adapt toys, said Wardega. RePlay for Kids formally become a nonprofit corporation in 1999.

Now RePlay for Kids is up to holding 56 workshops per year, she said. Since the organization has grown, Wardega’s job as assistant director has grown along with it, from a 10-hour-a-week administrative assistant position in 2007 to what will be a full-time position in January, she said.

The only other employee is Edie Dale, an engineer who also works part-time with the organization and started last year. For Memberg, the job is completely volunteer, said Wardega.

Since a new adapted toy can cost up to three times the price of a regular toy and agencies serving children with disabilities often have limited budgets, RePlay for Kids fills a big need in Northeast Ohio, Wardega said. By also repairing the toys, RePlay for Kids is saving these agencies a lot of money, she added.

The organization also has a program called RePlay @ Home to provide low-income families with adapted toys to use at home, which allows children to play at home with toys often used in therapy sessions, making therapy more effective, she said. RePlay for Kids does not give to families directly, but donates to its partner agencies, according to Wardega.

At RePlay for Kids’ free workshops, volunteers — who need not have mechanical or engineering backgrounds — gather to repair and/or adapt toys together. Volunteers can learn on the job how to help, Wardega said, working on fixes like repairing a corroded wire or battery case in a repair workshop. Also at repair workshops, volunteers fix battery-operated assistive devices such as communication aids.

During adaptation workshops, volunteers learn how to install a switch cable in parallel with a toy’s original switch on battery-operated toys. For example, volunteers might take a Tickle Me Elmo doll that dances when its belly is pressed and adapt it by installing a jack so someone with a disability can connect a switch he or she will have an easier time activating.

Other workshops are hosted by companies offering volunteer opportunities open just to their own employees. One example is Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., which has a group of volunteer engineers who repair toys on a regular basis for UDS, according to RePlay organization officials.

Besides volunteering at workshops, anyone interested in helping RePlay for Kids can host a toy drive to collect new battery-operated toys with one or two switches for others to adapt, said Wardega.

This year, at the giveaway event Dec. 5, in handing out more than 800 toys, RePlay for Kids gave away the most toys it has ever given away, according to organization officials.

Recipients at the giveaway were invited to take the toys and put them to good use in their respective organizations.

“They can keep them or give them away — we let them determine what’s best for the children,” said Wardega.

As a result of workshops and volunteer efforts, RePlay for Kids has saved its partner agencies more than $268,000 during the past 14 years, according to organization officials.

To find out more about workshops, anyone can sign up to be added to RePlay for Kids’ notification list. Also, a calendar on the organization’s website, www.replayforkids.org, shows which workshops are open to the public.

For additional information about RePlay for Kids, whose main offices are located in Medina, visit the website, call 330-721-8281 or toll-free at 1-866-9-REPLAY or email info@replayforkids.org.

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