SOUTH PLAINFIELD - South Plainfield Middle School students welcomed a class of children from The Lakeview School, a program of the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities (NJID), located in Edison, NJ, on the morning of Thursday March 28th. The South Middle School STEM Club presented the children with toys they had converted into switch operated learning devices. Students from the Middle School’s Students Doing Good program also participated in the day, taking the Lakeview students and staff on a guided tour of the school and assisting the children with their new toys.
“South Plainfield Middle School students have adapted toys for the younger students at Lakeview School to enjoy for the past several years,” said Librarian Christine Brandenburg, who heads the STEM Club with Teacher Carolyn White. “We always explain to our students how important this program is and how much these toys help the Lakeview kids learn cause and effect and communication skills.”
“We do all this work to make the toys and the best part is the smile on the kids’ faces,” said STEM Club member Bryson Bradshaw, Eighth Grade Student.
“I felt really happy and it brought me a lot of joy to be helping out these kids and have our classmates build toys for them that they can relate to and play with in their own special ways,” said Sarah Jadallah, Eighth Grade student and member of Students Doing Good.
The Lakeview School is a program offered by the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities. It is a place of learning and discovery for many children with disabilities with 160 students enrolled ages three to twenty-one years old from twelve New Jersey counties.
“For a number of years, the students of South Plainfield Middle School have used their time and talent to create switch adapted toys for our Lakeview School students to play with and learn from,” said Judi Alfano, Supervisor of Education and Testing, Lakeview School. “The interaction between our two schools continues to prove that our differences don’t define us, but rather, what we have in common – the desire to connect with others.”
“Toys can often be a challenge for special needs children to play with independently,” said Diane Ackerman, Special Education Teacher at Lakeview. “The STEM Club took the time to pick out toys, buy them and adapt them so our children can play with them, bringing two groups of students together to play.”
The STEM Club rewired and adapted the toys to help the special needs students who may not have the manual dexterity to press small buttons, making it easier for them to access the operating buttons. The students were able to adapt the toys to work with a much larger switch so the children can see that pressing a large button makes the toy react.
The South Middle School STEM Club is an after school club open to all seventh and eighth graders. The students who created the adaptive toys were: Robbie Krovatin, Frankie Flannery, Jayden Hunter, Bryson Bradshaw, Eric Nguyen, Denise Bri, Nader Zahsan, Vishal Budhan, Anthony Cortese and Emily Gumaldi.
On the sunny Thursday morning of March 28th, two handicap accessible Lakeview buses pulled into the Middle School parking lot. Students Doing Good held open the front doors and lined the corridor, welcoming the children as the entered.
“Students Doing Good is an anti-bullying organization that we started about five years ago to encourage students to embrace differences and be more accepting of others,” said Middle School Student Assistance Counselor Joretta Strayhorn, who leads the Students Doing Good program. “Today was an opportunity for the students and the entire school to see students who are different than them. The Students Doing Good really acted as ambassadors for our students coming from Lakeview.”
Students are nominated for the Students Doing Good program by Middle School Staff, who choose those observed going out of their way for others. After being interviewed by members of the Middle School Safety Team, the new inductees are determined. Those who participated in the Lakeview School visit were: Andrew Fallet, Gabriel Lindsay, Patrick McAuley, Tanisha Jaiprashod, Jaden Lloyd, Sarah Jadallah, Samantha Chozo, Sophie Lengercke, Sara McNelly and Sara Orlowski.
Several Middle School students paired up with the children from Lakeview and pushed their wheelchairs through the hallways while their peers gave a guided tour of the ins and outs of the school.
“It was fun having the kids from Lakeview visit because I got to help them and make their day,” said Jaden Lloyd, Eighth Grade Students Doing Good member. “I really enjoyed showing them around our school and helping them learn.”
Along their student led tour, they stopped to visit the music students and the South Plainfield Middle School Orchestra performed songs for them. They also followed the smell of baking muffins to visit the Middle School Special Needs class as they prepared for their Friday bake sale.
The group finished their tour in the school’s library, where the STEM Club waited to present the children with with their new toys. Placing the toys on the wheelchair trays and tables in front of the children, the older students helped their young guests explore the gifts, delighting when the children pressed the switches to make the toys move and dance. The Lakeview students watched the new toys with wonder, smiling at the stuffed animal’s performance at their command.
“It’s very humbling to see all these kids with different disabilities and abilities so happy playing with the toys that were made just for them,” said Sara McNelly, member of Students Doing Good. “Coming from a family where I have an autistic brother, it’s cool to see the different ways that kids react with different toys and how they interact on a daily basis.”
“Building an object that makes kids smile shows how much you can impact their lives,” said Jayden Hunter, Eighth Grade STEM Club member.
Most of the children are nonverbal and switch operated toys allow them to communicate their wants and needs. They use switch operated devices everyday at school to answer questions posed by their teachers and therapists just like in any mainstream classroom as well as to express their needs and desires or to just have fun.
“There are two types of switches,” said Diane Ackerman, who is Brianna’s Special Education Teacher at Lakeview School. “One type of switch plugs into toys or the computer and the other is used as a basic voice output device to relay a message. They both help the students learn to communicate by learning cause and effect. When they touch a switch, something is activated or said. It also gives the students an opportunity to socially engage with staff and peers.”
“I can only imagine being in these kids’ shoes.” said Robbie Krovatin, eighth grade student and a member of the STEM Club. “They’re so happy to have these toys and learn.”
The partnership of schools began in 2016 when Patricia Feeney spoke with her daughter’s teacher at Lakeview, Diane Ackerman, who mentioned that a group of robotics students once wired switches to regular toys, but were no longer able to do so anymore. The school was in need of more devices, but purchasing switch operated toys outright can be extremely costly, so Feeney approached Middle School Principal Kevin Hajduk (currently the principal of Kennedy School) to ask if the students of the STEM Club, called MakerSpace at the time, could convert the toys.
“My son was in MakerSpace at the time and it seemed like a wonderful way for the creative students of program to use their engineering expertise and apply it to something that would have a true impact on another’s life,” said Feeney. “Because my youngest daughter is nonverbal, these toys lay the ground work for her classmates and her to communicate through computers and advanced technology.”
Shortly after, the Middle School took a trip to Lakeview and had the chance to meet the children they would help, but many agree that from the beginning, it was evident that Lakeview would have a profound children impact on the Middle School children as well.
“During our tour of classrooms filled with children of all ages and abilities, we stopped at a classroom of students in their early teens,” said Feeney. “Every student had a computer mounted on their wheelchair that gave them a voice to speak the thoughts they held within their hearts. One child expressed that he wanted to be a D.J., another told a joke and another said he just wanted to have more friends. Every Middle School student came away from that experience with the same reaction, ‘They’re just like us!’ They had the same dreams, insecurities and desire to laugh and have fun as every other teenager.”
Brandenburg and White went to work soon after the partnership was made official three years ago, taking soldering classes and exploring ways to make the dream of helping the Lakeview children a reality. Ever since then, through toy donations, fundraising and hard work, the STEM Club continues to transform everyday toys into toys the children can play with and enjoy while teaching invaluable skills.
“I cannot think of a more rewarding and meaningful project for our children to be involved in,” said Strayhorn. “The lessons our students experience gaining new technology skills while helping others is unparalleled. We hope that this partnership continues for many, many years to come.”
As the time came for the Lakeview students to board buses and travel back to their school in Edison, the toys were packed to bring with them.
“A special thanks to South Plainfield Middle School for inviting us today to your school,” said Alison Rybinski, Classroom Aid at Lakeview. “We really enjoyed ourselves and playing with our new toys.”
“It was a very pleasurable experience for staff and students,” said Lori Bruns, Paraprofessional at Lakeview.
“I thought today was a good day,” said Andrew Fallot, Eighth Grade Students Doing Good member. “I realized it must take a lot of patience to work with the kids everyday.”
The students and staff from both Lakeview and the Middle School learn from one another and have the unique experience of stepping into each other’s worlds for a couple of hours as they alternate yearly visits between the schools.
“This experience truly is the highlight of our year,” said Strayhorn. “We’re very fortunate and blessed to be able to a part of such a wonderful school.”
“It was a fantastic day of friends and fun at South Plainfield Middle School,” said Nicole Torres, Teacher’s Assistant at Lakeview.
The Middle School students gathered by the doors of the school and waved as the buses pulled away, saying good bye for now to their Lakeview friends.
“I loved meeting these kids,” said Samantha Chozo, Seventh Grade member of Students Doing Good. “It made me so happy and it brought be a lot of joy to see them playing with these toys. I just loved it!”
Next year, the Middle School students will visit Lakeview bringing with them more toys and leaving all differences behind to have a genuine exchange of pure joy and connection through play.
“The simple act of playing with toys gave my students the chance to make friends and show off what they can do,” said Ackerman. “It hopefully gave the students at the Middle School the opportunity to embrace children who seem different on the outside, but are the same on the inside. We all walked away with new friends and a life changing experience.”