Donated toys offers chance to help kids read better

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The Marine Corps. isn’t changing the name to “Educational Toys for Tots” but Regina Williams-Preston might not mind it if they did.

Williams-Preston, an educator and South Bend Common Council member, is spearheading an effort to encourage people who donate new toys to the annual Christmas program for needy families to buy toys that help young children, especially those who are preschool age, learn basic skills that will better prepare them for reading when they enter first grade.

Williams-Preston, a former teacher who now works as a special education support team transition facilitator at South Bend Community School Corp., said children in the city’s low-income areas would learn reading better if they had more exposure to toys that help them learn letter-sound correspondence, or phonics, along with vocabulary and basic comprehension skills.

The need is clear. Only 45 percent of the corporation’s third-graders passed the English-Language Arts portion of the ISTEP-plus exam this year, the fifth-worst performance among Indiana’s 296 public school corporations, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

“We will no longer allow poverty to be an excuse for poor educational outcomes for children,” Williams-Preston said. “Forty-thousand people within a 10-mile radius of South Bend do not have a high school credential. Enough! As a community we can come together to make sure every child has access to tools to prepare them for success in school.”

Donors aren’t required to buy educational toys and families must register to receive the toys, as has always been the case. But the school corporation is identifying about 300 first-grade students at Title 1 schools, meaning they draw from predominantly poor neighborhoods, who are reading below grade level. The schools will send Toys for Tots registration forms home to those families and encourage them to register.

Toys for Tots will distribute the learning toys throughout the county, not just within the school corporation’s boundaries.

During a $15,000 toy buy Nov. 2 at the Grape Road Toys R Us, most of the toys bought and donated were educational, said Sgt. Jesse Funderburg, Toys for Toys coordinator.

“In previous years people would donate (educational toys) but it’s not on the scale that it is this year,” Funderburg said. “When she approached us we were happy that she wanted to do that, and we definitely want to promote that.”

The Far Northwest Neighborhood Association is helping to register families.

The Fremont Youth Foundation, which is in the process of becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit, also is on board. Its volunteers are eager to help the children learn how to use the educational toys, said its president, Kim Clowers. She envisions this happening through the foundation’s Street Smarts Book Club, which gathers children in Fremont Park in the summer and at Success Academy in the winter, encouraging them to read and discuss critical life issues such as bullying.

“I think it’s absolutely amazing,” Clowers said of the initiative. “I think it’s just an awesome opportunity.”