Students reap enduring life lessons

By Bronna Lipton, Michela Piccoline, Kristen Lindstrom, Jamie Drucker, Sarah Samuels and Katherine Santos

How does a collection of gently used plastic toys bring schools, students, teachers and parents together? New Jersey schools are discovering the answer by partnering with Second Chance Toys, a charitable nonprofit that promotes collections of these toys and donates them to local organizations serving children in need.

  • Besides being loads of fun for students of all ages, the benefits of a gently used plastic toy collection and cleaning include:
  • Students learn firsthand the life lessons of giving and reuse.
  • Students are empowered by giving something of their own.
  • Children learn that there are others less fortunate.
  • Parents and community have a responsible way to unload unwanted plastic toys.
  • Teachers can use the collection as a springboard for discussions on the environment.
  • Sustainable Jersey awards points to schools for participation.

Below are examples of collections coordinated by elementary and high school teachers, who offer their insights, their students’ experiences and why they and reasons their students keep collecting year after year.

Pascack Valley High School

Environmental Club Co-Advisers: Michela Piccoline and Kristen Lindstrom
When we discovered Second Chance Toys many years ago, and saw how our goals aligned, we joined forces, and have been conducting gently used plastic toy collections ever since.

The goal of the Environmental Club at Pascack Valley High School is to educate all students, involve them in activities that have a quantifiable impact, and inspire them to continue being stewards of environmental change beyond their years in school and into the community. As advisers, we work with the students to find activities that are timed for the season and bring solutions to local environmental problems. There is no shortage of meaningful programs in which to get involved.

We wanted the students in the club, and ultimately the entire student body, to recognize how reuse is an important part of sustainability. What better way to put this into action than with donations of used plastic toys? They are ubiquitous, and the students could easily find them in their own homes, or their friends’, neighbors’ or relatives’ homes. Giving plastic toys a second chance through collection, cleaning and donation has given all participating students a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that they have contributed something tangible and that they helped pay it forward with their efforts.

Our school has been participating with Second Chance Toys since 2016 in their end-of-year holiday collection in November and December. The students gear up for upcoming toy drives by holding a club meeting. All members carefully review the types of toys that are accepted and prepare to publicize the collection with school announcements, emails and fliers. Then they place collection boxes throughout the school. Every year, we receive a number of donations from the staff and faculty, which is a wonderful way to unite us for a great cause. And best of all, the students enjoy coming together to see the fruits of their labor when all the toys are laid out in one room, and where they inspect, count and clean them.

Students learn best when they are performing a hands-on task. It is one thing to educate the students through information, invited speakers and videos. However, the message really lands when the students are able to physically partake, give back and see directly the impact of their involvement.

“Most teenagers don’t believe they can make a difference,” Environmental Club President Shaina Julis shared. “But it is possible that getting involved in a project such as this, helps both the environment and people’s lives.”

Over the years, the club has honed its collection process and learned more about the organizations and children we are serving. As the environmental club membership continues to grow and the outreach becomes more widespread, our collections have grown exponentially. Having recently just finished a collection, the students were excited to top their previous year’s effort and we, as teachers and advisers for the club, were thrilled to see our students integrate reuse into their learning and prepare themselves to become good stewards of the Earth.

Student Council members from Bogert Elementary School in
Upper Saddle River show off one of the plastic games they collected.

Edith A. Bogert Elementary School, Upper Saddle River

Student Council Co-Advisers: Jamie Drucker and Sarah Samuels
When our principal approached us with the opportunity for the student council to initiate a collection of gently used plastic toys for the school and support the town’s effort, we immediately saw this as a great opportunity. After all, where are most of the toys in town? In the homes of our elementary school kids! This challenge was going to be fun for all!

The Upper Saddle River Department of Public Works (DPW) had been participating in the Second Chance Toys NJ Recycling Center Program to collect toys all year long and keep plastics out of landfills. Second Chance Toys arranges for the toys at the DPW facility to be cleaned and donated. The DPW knew it could grow its collection by partnering with our elementary school, which happens to be located across the street.

We were excited for our students to participate not only because they would easily relate to colorful plastic toys, but because the effort could be completely student-driven. At our twice monthly student council meetings, members created posters and announcements to encourage all students to bring in their used plastic toys. They decorated the collection boxes that were located at the front of the school, they monitored the boxes as they filled up, and the students were responsible for alerting us when it was time to have a DPW pickup.

Second Chance Toys would normally match a school directly with a local organization and arrange for a pickup. Since we were acting as a “feeder” to the town collection, Second Chance Toys let us know when and where the town’s toys were donated, so we could share that information with the students.

Students at the Harmony House Early Learning Center in Newark are among the recipients of the toys.

This program resonates with students, parents and the community because it drives home the importance of giving back and caring for others. Upon learning of the program, several students remarked on how they immediately went through their toys with their parents when they got home, and truly enjoyed the experience. They realized how donating toys they outgrew or were no longer interested in could change the life of another child. What better way to sensitize our children at an early age than through a hands-on program like this?

Bogert School Principal Dave Kaplan has been encouraged by the outcomes of taking on this program at the school.

“I am thrilled to support this type of program in Bogert because it teaches students two important lessons: the importance of supporting those who are less fortunate and the importance of reusing unwanted items before simply disposing of them into a landfill,” Kaplan noted. “The social and environmental lessons students learn from working with Second Chance Toys are invaluable.”

The reaction to the program continues to be extraordinarily positive and endearing. Isla Griswold, a fourth-grade student who donated a toy said, “It felt really good to go through my toys because I knew it was going to make someone else smile.” Jack Foye, a student who donated toys as well, commented, “I felt helpful knowing I was giving toys to someone who needed them.”

This year, Bogert School is excited to be collaborating twice with Second Chance Toys: once in the winter for the holidays, and once in the spring for Earth Month. The support for the holiday drive was once again overwhelming. Not only did the student council take the lead in its promotion, but it also played a special role in the cleaning of the toys and writing notes to their future owners. We are looking forward to emphasizing Earth Month themes during our spring collection and challenging our student council and student body to bring the learning into their everyday lives.

The holiday toy collection at Evergreen Elementary School in Scotch Plains.

Evergreen Elementary School, Scotch Plains

Fourth Grade Teacher: Katherine Santos
Since 2009, Evergreen School has been partnering with Second Chance Toys twice a year to collect used plastic toys. Evergreen is a very close-knit community of students, parents, and school staff. When a need surfaces, everyone rallies together and rises to the occasion. The formula for the collection is unique at this prekindergarten through fourth grade school. Each of our collections, once in the winter for the holidays and once in the spring for Earth Month, lasts only one hour, yet nearly 1,000 toys are collected per year at this elementary school. Toys that would have been dumped in landfills wind up in the hands of children who can enjoy them.

In order to collect so many toys, word of the Second Chance Toy drive begins to spread at the beginning of the school year. The weekly PTA email blast to families and the message board in front of the school include reminders about the collection. Additionally, teachers discuss the upcoming event with their students and make the connection to the school’s motto: Kind Words, Kind Hands, Kind Hearts. What better way to demonstrate this message than through kids helping kids? Students are inspired to donate their own toys, knowing they will have a positive impact on the life of another child.

“Our students are being supported by their families and teachers to develop a sense of service to our community,” Evergreen School Principal Colleen Haubert remarked. “The Second Chance Toy drive is a relevant opportunity for our students to connect their lives with the lives of other children in different communities. We hope our students continue to grow in their desire to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways that help them to see their impact in the larger world.”

So how do all those toys donated at Evergreen School get organized, cleaned and ready for their new owners on collection day? By our fourth grade students! They work with parent volunteers to sort through the toys, which pile up on Evergreen’s front lawn the morning of the toy collection. The fourth grade volunteers also write messages of hope and good cheer to attach to the toys. Then the toys are loaded up in 1-800-GOT-JUNK? trucks and taken to designated organizations!

“We liked helping out because we know the toys will make other kids happy!” fourth-grader Kathleen Lepkowski exclaimed. “And that made us all feel good.”

Fourth-graders are well versed in philanthropy, thanks to their grade-level service-learning project that varies year to year, but its message remains the same: Make a positive difference in your community. Being a part of Second Chance Toys is a valuable opportunity for these students to demonstrate what they have learned about giving to others.

Second Chance Toys is an integral part of Evergreen School’s giving spirit. Year after year this school community looks forward to the opportunity to give back in such a simple, yet meaningful way.

Bronna Lipton is the executive director of Second Chance Toys. She can be reached through Michela Piccoline, Kristen Lindstrom, Jamie Drucker, Sarah Samuels and Katherine Santos are NJEA members working in the schools covered in this article.

Getting your collection started

A used plastic toy collection and cleaning is loads of fun, can be used to promote leadership, reward students, teach life lessons and is easy to get started.

  • Decide the dates of your collection.
  • Activate your collection by signing up at Registration begins March 1 for Earth Month collections and November 1 for holiday collections.
  • Once registered, Second Chance Toys (SCT) will match you with a local organization that serves children in need and arrange for transport of the toys.
  • SCT offers free downloadable resources and collection tips.
  • Read about other schools’ collections on the blog for more ideas.

For questions email

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