Adult assembly required


Michael Minnick, a senior mechanical engineering student from Hubbard, does his best to patch up a hopelessly sheared sheep.

Toys can be the best of companions to children, especially to those with special needs. Unfortunately, sometimes their little electric veins dry up, and their plastic muscles wear out.
University of Akron engineering students and community members — toy surgeons, you could say — got together this month as part of RePlay for Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides toys and assistive devices to Northeast Ohio children with special needs, to repair more than just battery-operated hearts. By fixing and adapting heaps of broken toys for children with disabilities, they lit up children's faces as well as Buzz Lightyear's flashing wings.

One of those children, Rakaya McMullen, happily watches as her mother, Lorie Smith-McMullen of Akron, joins students at the event and adapts one of Rakaya's favorite toys.

"If it wasn't for these guys making switch adaptors," says Smith-McMullen, fluffy orange toy in hand, "she wouldn't be able to play with any toys at all. This toy is her favorite, but she can't make it dance and sing unless I help her. Now she can do it herself."

Creating joy, raising awareness 

Natalie Wardega, RePlay for Kids assistant director, says the adaptation of mainstream toys is crucial for raising awareness and accommodating disabled children in inclusion classrooms.

Senior mechanical engineering student Sarah McGowan makes the formerly mute Chef Elmo speak again.

Replay for Kids founder and president Bill Memberg, a biomedical engineer, launched the program at Case Western Reserve University. Two years ago, UA began its participation.
University of Akron Women in Engineering Director Heidi Cressman organizes the workshops at the University, which are held periodically throughout the year. "We provide these workshops so the students can feel more comfortable working with tools," she says.

Hands-on learning

One of those students, Cady Bruce, a senior mechanical engineering major in UA's Honors College, says the event allows students to learn in a relatively pressure-free environment.

"It's a good opportunity for students to get their hands dirty — or covered in fuzz, so to speak," says Bruce as she resuscitates a mechanical puppy. "The toys are already broken," she adds, "so the worst we can do is to break them again."
Some of the toys are admittedly beyond saving. A mangled toy sheep lies helplessly on the table where senior mechanical engineering major Michael Minnick, also in UA's Honors College, has better luck with a brightly colored gizmo. This revitalized toy, like the formerly mute Elmo doll whose squeaky voice is now restored, and countless other resurrected pals, will be delivered to nonprofit agencies that work with children with disabilities.
"We, as engineers, feel it’s important to give back,” says Minnick.

 Story by Nick Nussen

Media contact: Denise Henry, 330-972-6477 or