Teacher Appreciation

Retired teacher and nonprofit executive Mary Simon in her garage, full of objects can be turned into math games, science experiments and art projects. “I want [teachers] to know there are people in the world who think they are important,” she says.

On a Tuesday afternoon in Monterey, two kindergarten teachers from La Mesa Elementary are “shopping” for classroom supplies at The Sandbox, aka Mary Simon’s garage. Greta Huang is excited to find a stash of blank greeting cards, perfect for the Mother’s Day project her students are making. The moms are receiving wooden frames painted by their children, using paint Huang picked up from Simon’s “store” for free.

“Every time we come here, [Simon] has something new,” Huang says, eying more items in the garage she can transform into lessons and activities to get her students excited about learning. There are all sorts of knickknacks and cast-off materials like empty tennis ball cans, plastic lids, cardboard tubes, beads, yarn and more in bins, drawers and on shelves lining the walls of the garage Simon renovated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is my happy place,” Simon says. The science and math teacher-turned-nonprofit-entrepreneur is now retired and doing exactly what she wants to do. Her retirement plan is to support local teachers and inspire students by providing free teaching materials and lesson plans. It’s an extension of her former career as founder and executive director of the nonprofit RAFT, Resource Area For Teachers, in Santa Clara County.

In 1995, Simon and her team filled a warehouse with donated items from local companies that might otherwise headed to the landfill. Looking at the materials on hand, they created lesson plans for teachers, focused mostly on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – and STEAM, which incorporates art. The mission was simple: support teachers who often use their own money to provide classroom materials; inspire students to love science and math; divert waste from landfills. RAFT’s website reports redirecting 3 million cubic feet of materials in 2017 alone.

Simon retired from RAFT in 2015 and came to Monterey. She turned her downstairs garage into a woodworking shop. Then the pandemic came in 2020 and it made Simon reassess her life. “I thought, I miss a certain part of RAFT, and that’s making teachers happy,” she says. She decided to bring a mini-RAFT to the teachers of Monterey County. “My priority is to help teachers be excited so kids will be excited.”

She lined shelves with sample projects like kaleidoscopes, mini-catapults and balancing frogs, an experiment using a paper frog weighted with paperclips. Underneath the samples are little signs that say “Please Touch.” She affixed a bright and cheery patchwork logo for The Sandbox on the wall.

Next Simon stocked up with materials from RAFT and donations from local businesses. What she couldn’t find for free she purchased herself. She orders many materials online, but also scours garage sales and thrift shops, always looking for the best deals.

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In the spring of 2021, as Covid cases began to fall ahead of the delta variant surge, she asked a local printer to run flyers for free announcing the opening of The Sandbox and dropped them off at schools. Teachers showed up, somewhat in disbelief that anyone would give away such treasures. Some would hesitantly ask if they could take a few items, and were surprised when Simon urged them to take as much as they needed.

“I think ‘abundance’ should be in a teacher’s vocabulary,” Simon says.

In her mind, being able to take as much as they need so that every student has all the materials to make their own project encourages a spirit of creativity – in both teachers and students.

Diana Price, just finishing up her first year as a kindergarten teacher working with Huang at La Mesa in Monterey, has already benefited, stocking her classroom with free books from The Sandbox’s bins, and taking away new ideas.

“It gives the kids fun things to do at school that we would not be able to afford otherwise,” Price says.

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