SAN JOSE -- It's a cross between Costco, San Francisco's Exploratorium and Disneyland.
That's how Executive Director Mary Simon describes the Resource Area For Teachers, the nonprofit that will open its doors Saturday to the general public for the first time in its 20-year history.
In those years of "upcycling," RAFT has diverted millions of cubic feet from landfills, provided more than 500,000 learning kits and steadfastly championed hands-on learning -- a philosophy that the rest of the country now has officially embraced.
RAFT also has served as a teacher workroom, drafting space, supplier and idea engine, and a hub for community involvement in education.
The Saturday open houses in San Jose and Redwood City celebrate RAFT's anniversary, just before founder Simon retires next month. Visitors will see what's available to members: shelves of science and math kits, bins of lab equipment and ideas for lesson plans. They will be able to create butterfly shapes or silhouettes of famous people using Northern California's largest assembly of die-cut machines. There are paper galore, books, science-lab equipment and a whole wall of Mrs. Grossman's stickers -- all surplus materials donated by businesses, and sold at deep discounts.
For teachers floundering in teaching science or flummoxed by California's new Common Core curriculum, or just short on cash and supplies, RAFT has ridden to the rescue.
"I'm a RAFTaholic," said Russo Academy teacher Sherry Duarte, who shops at RAFT three or four times a month, digging into her pocket to supplement the $50 annually that the Alum Rock Union School District pays for her second-grade classroom supplies. From construction paper to surprise finds like key-chain thermometers to teach measurement, Duarte said, "it really only costs me pennies."
Another teacher, Teresa Hernandez, was filling a shopping cart this weekwith 50-cent packets of books. After years of teaching upper-elementary classes, this year she's equipping her kindergarten-first-grade class at Southgate Elementary in Hayward. Since RAFT's inventory changes often, Hernandez tries to visit several times a month to see what's available. "You never know what's going to be here," she said, "It's fun."
But RAFT is not just about happy discount shopping. It has a serious mission, to promote active learning, inspire teachers as well as repurpose businesses's discards for the classroom and involve them in education.
Simon taught second and third grades in Pasadena, then moved to the South Bay and worked at the Children's Discovery Museum, designing a popular exhibit, "Doodad Dump," that used surplus discarded materials. She thought if she could provide similar items and lessons for teachers, many more children could benefit. Hence, RAFT was born.
RAFT's team of inventor-tinkerers examines incoming materials, considers their attributes and imagines possible uses. Then they try to devise hands-on projects that address the concepts kids need to learn and that teachers may struggle with teaching.
The job of the team, all former teachers, is to see something with a new perspective. Simon calls it "vuja de," the opposite of deja vu: "I've seen this thing 100 times, now all of a sudden I'm seeing it as if for the first time. Now it's not a paperclip but something new."
In RAFT's science-kit incubator, soon-to-be circuit boards are being devised with foam, plastic boards, graph paper, pipette tips, wire and brads. An already-complete kit to explain sound uses a 33-1/3 album -- a 12-inch vinyl wonder to children -- a bulletin-board pin as a needle and a paper cone as amplifier.
The supplies all come from business donations that range from desks to film canisters. "As soon as we tell a company, 'we want your cast-off widgets,'" Simon said, "they're like, 'what else can we give you? Please come back next week and we'll have more.' "
Legions of volunteers sort donations, and also assemble the learning kits at RAFT's Sunnyvale warehouse.
Donors are thrilled to see how their discards are spared from the garbage dump and reincarnated in a lesson -- the kind that Simon hopes resonates with students. To transform discards into learning kits is inspiring, she said, "Now some child is going to look at that and become a creator and a maker themselves," she said. "Once they're engaged in learning, they soak up the facts themselves."
As she retires after building RAFT from a mere idea to a $3.5 million organization, Simon said she'll remember people's generosity, and wishes for the public to support non-profit groups, particularly those in education.
Simon says she has no immediate plans for retirement. "I've been saying no to everything," she said. "I want to breathe for six months and figure out who I am when I'm not RAFT."
Now, with the new Common Core State Standards' emphasis on hands-on learning, RAFT is getting more calls than ever. "There's a huge opportunity for RAFT," Simon said. "We're going to have a really rapid growth spurt in the next five years."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
The Resource Area For Teaching will hold open houses Saturday at two of its locations:
1355 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose -- 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
101 Twin Dolphin Dr., Redwood City -- 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.