More than 200 Exhibitors at NEA Expo in Orlando

Visitors to the sprawling NEA Expo Hall Wednesday could not avoid the NEA Member Benefits Center, where 30 of the event’s 200-plus booths are located.

“This is like the town square of the Expo,” said Tim Gilman, creative director for Bodden Partners, the company which organized the two-day Expo and other activities related to the National Education Association’s 153rd Annual Meeting and 94th Representative Assembly (RA) in Orlando, Florida.

“You can’t miss the tower with the monitor,” Gilman said. “Everyone who comes through here will learn something that can benefit their professional and personal life.”

Well-staffed Member Benefits booths offered information about everything from auto, home and pet insurance benefits to credit card, savings, retirement, health and merchandise discount programs.

“It’s to the advantage of the delegates to see the depth and breadth of the benefits available to them,” said Mark Silverman, Bodden accounts director. “They just might find a benefit that could save them thousands of dollars.”

Attendees wanting to check their hearing ability were able to visit the Hear in America booth, where four costumed pirates posed with visitors for photos.

“We want to balance the fun with the learning,” Silverman said.

More than 7,000 delegates are expected to gather at the Orange County Convention Center for the RA starting Friday. Many already in Orlando for pre-conference meetings and events were able to attend lectures, purchase books, clothing, and jewelry, board a school bus promoting student hygiene, give blood, and line up at a variety of booths seeking the attention of educators by offering promotional products.

Twenty-five strong lined up at BIC Corporation’s booth in support of the “Fight for Your Write” campaign and to receive a packet of free pencils and pens.

“Our campaign’s mission is to save handwriting,” said Cathy Tinker, assistant brand manager. “Handwriting helps develop a child’s motor skills.”

Another group of 25 stood patiently at the Pilot Corporation of America booth for a mini-presentation and free box of pens and dry erase markers.

“They come every year,” says Amy Laplante, marketing specialist. “They tell us how they used some of the products in their classrooms that they got here last year.”

On her annual pilgrimage to the Expo, Marilyn O’Malley-Hicks, a social studies teacher from Takoma, Washington, had — after just one hour — organized four bags of goods that she says she will continue to fill with pencils, rulers, and other freebies. Before the RA starts Friday, she intends to mail a care package home for colleagues.

“They aren’t able to be here,” says O’Malley-Hicks. “The package is a way that connects them to NEA and our union colleagues.”

In addition to products and services, the Expo also offered a constant flow of attendees the opportunity to show solidarity with the American Postal Workers Union. The 200,000-member union is calling for a boycott of Staples for staffing in-store post offices with underpaid, untrained, private-sector workers.

“Teachers on average spend hundreds of dollars a year on school supplies,” said Richard Shelley, a postal work from Baltimore, Maryland. “We are asking for their support in fighting the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service. So far, not one person has said they wouldn’t support the boycott.”

At the crowded Haymarket Books booth, attendees pocketed their smartphones and started reading books heralding civil rights, labor, and other social justice movements. Of particular interest to educators was a book edited by NEA member Jesse Hagopian titled, “More than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.” Hagopian is a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington.

Around the corner, at The Combined Book Exhibit booth, a book by NEA member Susie Guckin was available to shoppers. A teacher from New Jersey, Guckin’s book is titled, “The Camouflaged Heart.”

“Right now, dinosaur books are popular because of the movie Jurassic World,” says Claribel Ortega, social media manager for the exhibit. Today, Vivian Carpenter will be signing copies of her book, The Fifth Letter, from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m.

Ortega says despite a digital revolution in the book publishing industry, ink-and-pulp books are still popular with teachers, librarians, book bloggers, and students.

“E-books are convenient, but there’s nothing like holding a book in your hand,” Ortega says. “We get a lot of librarians shopping for books.”

One of the more popular exhibits included a 2005 Bluebird school bus fitted with educational video games promoting proper hygiene.

“We take it to schools,” said Chelsea Matchett, a representative at the Lysol booth. “We’re on a five-month tour.”

At the mobbed Microsoft booth, teacher Maria Turner helped visitors understand the latest developments involving OneNote, a program she says is designed to “save time and build a collaborative classroom.”

“It’s a wonderful tool for teachers,” says Tuner, a volunteer at the booth. “The designers actually asked teachers what they needed to save time and then incorporated their suggestions in the program.”

Because she is so pressed for time at home, Lynne Hubbard decided to take advantage of the blood bank and bone marrow screening booth and donate a pint.

“I haven’t given blood for a while because of all the rushing around with school and my local,” said Hubbard, president of the Seattle Education Office Professionals in Washington. “I feel like it is my responsibility.”

Nora Lopez, the blood center’s team leader, said the response by Expo-goers had been excellent.

“No one has fainted, either” she says. “They are doing it out of the spirit of their hearts.”

The NEA Expo continues today from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.