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Engineering students give special needs children the gift of play

Chemical engineering lecturer and senior technical associate Rachel Monfredo listens to a stuffed toy at a Toys for All Tots workshop. The student organization adapts battery-operated toys so that they can be used by children with limited mobility and other special needs. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

When Noah Meyers saw toys set out on tables in the Rettner Hall atrium, he couldn’t resist wandering over to learn more.

“I couldn’t say no to being a kid again,” he admits.

Next thing he knew, the University of Rochester sophomore was implanting a switch in a bright red Peek A Boo Elmo toy so it can be used by children with special needs at the University’s Golisano Children’s Hospital. The tables were set out as part of a workshop to teach students and other volunteers how to adapt the toys so that children with limited mobility can activate them on their own.

“I think it’s a really good cause,” says Meyers, a mechanical engineering major from Pittsford, New York. “And not only to help the kids. It helps me. It helps the whole community. It’s giving back while having fun doing it.”

Indeed, “it’s hard not to smile while doing this,” says Rachel Monfredo, a lecturer in chemical engineering at Rochester. Monfredo encouraged students to start a local Toys for All Tots initiative here after learning about the original program at Ohio State University—and how adapted toys can be a strong motivation for children with special needs to develop other skills.

Staff members who work with the children at Golisano are excited about the project.

“Playing with toys is an important part of childhood for all children; it makes them laugh and offers opportunities to interact with others and learn new skills,” says Lorna Patanella, a pediatric nurse practitioner.

However, “families often struggle with finding toys when their children cannot push the button to activate a toy,” Patanella says. “And toys that are adapted to allow children to activate them with a ‘switch’ are usually too expensive and not easily found in any stores.

“It is so heartwarming to see so many students taking their time to provide something as simple as a toy for these children.”

Though still in its infancy, the Rochester initiative has already received a donation of 28 toys from Mattel Inc. Twenty-three toys have been adapted so far.

Learn more about Toys for All Tots and how to make a donation.

The adaptation process can be readily learned, Monfredo says; she has encouraged students from multiple disciplines to get involved.

Judging from the recent workshop, it does help to have a steady hand with a soldering iron.

“Actually, the hardest part is taking the toys apart in a way that we can put them together again,” says Danielle Daniels, the director of diversity in STEM at the University’s David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity. “Once you’re able to do that, it’s pretty straightforward.”

Daniels, who worked as a mechanical engineer at Eastman Kodak and ITT before joining the University, said she was drawn to the workshop for the opportunity to “take things apart and put them back together”—and because her own son has benefited from Golisano Hospital.

Wendi Heinzelman, dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, sees multiple benefits from the project. In addition to helping children with special needs, she says, the project gives students an opportunity to participate in community-engaged learning. It could also create opportunities for engineering students to develop less expensive, more efficient, or more complex switches as part of their senior design projects. And it’s a good example of how the University strives to engage with the Greater Rochester community.

“This is a wonderful project,” she says.


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