Nonprofit celebrates Earth Day by renaming San Jose headquarters “The Simon Center” in honor of Mary Simon, founder and former executive director. The organization’s unique model of creative reuse reduces environmental impact while increasing access to engaging, hands-on learning tools.

Resource Area For Teaching (RAFT) honored its founder, Mary Simon, for creating a one-of-a-kind resource that has been invaluable for tens of thousands of educators. The education pioneer retired in 2014 after 20 years as RAFT’s executive director.

“In the Silicon Valley the innovators we all know include Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, and Larry Ellison. Mary Simon founded RAFT in 1994 and transformed her vision into an innovative organization that has made learning effective, engaging, and accessible for an entire generation of students. Though not as well-known as Jobs and Brin, Mary Simon is no less deserving to be included in Silicon Valley’s “hall of fame,” said Nigel Ball, President, RAFT Board of Directors. “Mary has not only changed education for the better, but has also founded a unique model for community engagement that has given me and countless others the opportunity to contribute to one of society’s most important issues, the education of our children.”

A former teacher, Simon started the organization to provide hands-on learning resources to educators looking for creative ways to inspire their students and foster critical-thinking skills. The experience deepened her belief that hands-on learning is the best way to help children understand complex concepts and develop a love of learning. She said project-based teaching is effective because it actively engages students in the learning process and brings abstract concepts to life. But teachers don’t always have the resources they need to provide hands-on activities and often end up paying for supplies out of their own pockets.

To save educators both time and money, Simon worked with local businesses and manufacturers to collect surplus materials and office supplies which RAFT then upcycled into hands-on learning tools. The operation continues to increase in reach and impact. In addition to providing affordable classroom basics, RAFT now also offers more than 100 Activity Kits which allow students to explore a variety of science, math, and art topics through engaging projects. These kits use commonly found materials such as CD cases and bottle caps to create memorable learning experiences at a fraction of the cost of similar activities. Upcycling operations at RAFT locations in California and Colorado divert more than 140,000 cubic feet of waste from landfills each year while fueling RAFT’s educational mission. To further increase affordability, RAFT relies on the thousands of volunteers who assemble kits, sort donations, and assist at the educator resource center.

“I wanted to create something I wish I had as a teacher,” she said. “I knew these resources not only had to be effective and engaging, they also had to be affordable. With the help of area companies and donors, we achieved that.”

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