Kindergartner Elaina Plaza's eyes light up as she plays with a colorful, padded, triangular box filled with surprises that come in the same triangular shape. There's a fabric watermelon slice, a boomerang and a triangle displaying the word "triangle."

Kindergartner Elaina Plaza's eyes light up as she plays with a colorful, padded, triangular box filled with surprises that come in the same triangular shape. There's a fabric watermelon slice, a boomerang and a triangle displaying the word "triangle."

When the box has been emptied, along with other boxes of different shapes, Plaza, who has Down syndrome, tries to put the contents back into the box of the same shape.

The toys stir up enthusiasm in teacher Melinda Carder's K-2 special education classroom at Medford's Hoover Elementary School, but without Carder's proactive appeal for funding from donors, the toys wouldn't have been possible.

"It teaches them shapes and colors," said Rachel Smyth, an education assistant in Carder's classroom. "We can say, 'Find the blue, or find the square.' "

Carder has garnered about $2,000 for educational projects, including the purchase of toys to hone her students' fine and gross motor skills, by making a request at DonorsChoose.org, a website created by a fellow teacher in the Bronx, N.Y., that acts as a clearinghouse where donors could pick out teachers' projects to finance.

As school budgets shrink annually, more and more teachers are turning to resources outside their school system to pay for classroom materials, supplies, curriculum and activities such as field trips. They seek help at websites such as DonorsChoose.org, businesses, foundations and others.

"The need is going up," Carder said. "Schools do their best to budget what they have. They support the basics, but with the kind of students I work with there is a range of disabilities. We are always in need of variety to meet all of their needs."

The toys, which also include puppets, a crawl tunnel, balance beam and bouncing balls, help create that variety.

K-12 teachers typically spend an average of $475 of their own money per year on classroom supplies without receiving reimbursement, according to a 2006-07 study "Teacher Buyer Behavior" by Quality Education Data.

Budget crises at schools nationwide have whittled away teachers' school-provided resources, while teachers themselves often personally experience the effects of the economic downturn. In the Medford School District alone, officials have to pare nearly $12 million in expenses because of rising costs in health insurance and pension obligations and a decrease in federal funding.

"We want to make sure we can do everything we can so kids in any classroom get the resources they need," said Linda Lochard of Horace Mann, an insurance company for educators. Horace Mann is one of the donors on DonorsChoose.org. "As school budgets go down and school years get shorter, this is our way of giving back to the community."

In light of schools' financial circumstances, grant writing has become a coveted skill among teachers.

"We are doing all that we can, and there is so much out of our control at this point," said Pam McCormick, a fourth-grade teacher at Medford's Wilson Elementary School. "We want to do so much for our students, and (grant writing) is a way we feel we can help the situation."

McCormick received about $2,000 this year from the Medford Schools Foundation to buy curriculum to enhance writing skills in fourth through sixth grades.

The money bought the "Teaching Writing Through the Use of Picture Books" program, which includes student and teacher books that provide inspiring photos and passages to help give students juice for the creative writing process, McCormick said.

Writing has been a focus in the Medford School District, following lackluster writing scores on the state assessment.

The Medford Schools Foundation distributes nearly $28,000 per year to Medford teachers, said President Peter Salant.

"The need is neverending," Salant said. "The need has become more dominant as resources from the state have diminished, and more pressure has been put on teachers to be creative and come up with their own funds."

DonorsChoose.org provided about $13,000 to Southern Oregon teachers since February of this year, said Ray Valek, of Valek and Co. Communications. Since 2000, DonorsChoose.org has provided $71 million to pay for resources for about 3.9 million students.

Those are just some examples of the funding sources available to teachers. Carder also has received donations from Lithia Honda in Medford and others.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or email pachen@mailtribune.com.