Meet The LA County Toy Loan Program — And A 'Toyrarian'
It’s not well-known, but it is one of the the oldest, and likely largest operations of its kind in the country. The L.A. County Toy Loan program got its start during the grinding poverty of the Great Depression, and has grown since then to some 50 centers, scattered around the county in schools, county buildings and various nonprofits.
The centers can be as small as a rolling cabinet whose doors are open just a few hours a week, to a library shelf, to an entire room full of toys. Regardless, the program operates the same.
Children from low-income families choose a toy to take home and play with for a week. Each time the child returns a toy on time in good condition, they get one point and then they borrow another toy. As they build up points they get small incentive gifts, like a Beanie Baby or small toy car, but — eyes on the prize — at 20 points, they get an entire bundle of toys, often including a new bicycle.
The program is meant to be character-building fun.
“We always direct them back to our Toy Loan honor code, which includes honesty, patience, courtesy promptness, cleanliness, cooperation and responsibility,” said Volunteer Programs Coordinator Brenda Gonzalez Camacho.
But as the pandemic hit, such a high-touch program was deemed too risky to continue. And so, many of the toys were gathered and sent into quarantine — at three different toy warehouses.
The main toy depository, in a county Department of Social Services building on Grand Avenue in South L.A., is something like a large library, except that the shelves are completely packed with toys, not books.
Parents apply for their children to be in the Toy Loan program via a one-page form.
The program has a secondary aim: to build relationships with the parents who accompany their children to the Toy Loan centers, so they have access to other services offered by the host organization — be it a school, county job training office or nonprofit.
Without regular contact, Gonzalez Camacho and her staffers had to get creative about what to do to keep kids, and families, engaged.
So they pivoted. And instead of loaning toys, they decided to give away new toys that had been donated by local toy companies.
But that too had an underlying motive: to keep kids in online school classes. One idea was Toys for Attendance, which gave points and small incentive toys to kids who consistently tuned into their Zoom classes. And at the end of the semester, the kids got an entire bundle of toys to keep.
Meet A Toyrarian
At the Toy Loan center at a county office in East L.A., I met Community Health Worker Evelyn Meneses. She acts as a "Toyrarian," in toy loan parlance, meaning she’s a toy librarian, and manages the lending program.
Each Toy Loan center follows the same general rules. However, they have some flexibility in deciding how to distribute the donated gifts they receive from the central Toy Loan office.
When the pandemic shut down the lending, Meneses sent the used toys back to the central depository and shifted gears to create giveaway programs. Now, when she gets shipments of toys, they are distributed to kids at drive-through events.
Some of the toys were also distributed through the county's Adopt-a-Family program.
Toy Donations Welcome
Families are anxious to see the Toy Loan program start up again, Meneses said. The return of toy lending will depend on the progress of the pandemic, and on each of the host organizations and the staffers and volunteers.
And when it eases up, the toys at the warehouse will be sprung from quarantine and returned to Toy Loan Centers once again.
The Toy Loan Program accepts money, donations of new toys, used toys that are in good condition and books suitable for children up to age 17. The ones that cannot be loaned out to children due to the difficulty of sanitizing after each use may end up being given to families to keep.
The program is always looking for new locations that have volunteers available consistently for at least two hours per week to manage the inventory of toys and interact with children and parents.
To volunteer or donate, call the Toy Loan program at 213-744-4344. You also can see more details on the program website.