Meet the LA County Toy Loan Program – And a ‘Toyrarian’

It is not known, but it is one of the oldest and probably largest operations of its kind in the country. The LA County Toy Loan program started during the Great Depression’s severe poverty and has since grown to about 50 centers, spread across the county in schools, county buildings, and various nonprofits.

Listen: LA’s toy library needs to be turned around during the pandemic

The centers can be as small as a trolley, whose doors are open just a few hours a week, to a library shelf, to an entire room filled with toys. Either way, the program works the same way.

Woman arranges toys in a toy loan closet

Cyndia Hernandez arranges toys in a trolley that can move between the main toy depot and a toy loan center.

(Sharon McNary

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LAist.com)

Children from low-income families choose a toy to take home and play with for a week. Each time the child delivers a toy on time in good condition, it gets a point, and then it borrows another toy. As they build points, they get small incentive gifts, like a Beanie Baby or a small toy car, but – with their eyes on the prize – with 20 points, they get a whole bunch of toys, often including a new bike.

The program is meant to be character-creating fun.

“We always lead them back to our code of honor for toy loans, which includes honesty, patience, courtesy, speed, cleanliness, cooperation and responsibility,” said Brenda Gonzalez Camacho, volunteer program coordinator.

Woman in a toy depot holding a sign and a pink cow doll

Toy Loan Employee Shannon Denby with Toy Loan Honor Code and a Pink Cow Puppet

(Sharon McNary

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LAist.com)

Pandemic Pivot

But when the pandemic hit, such a high-touch program was considered too risky to continue. So many of the toys were collected and sent in quarantine – at three different toy warehouses.

The main toy depot in a county Department of Social Services building on Grand Avenue in southern LA is something like a large library, except that the shelves are completely filled with toys, not books.

Dolls staring from the shelves at Toy Loan depository.jpg

Some dolls that will be gifted to children in the county’s Toy Loan program

(Sharon McNary

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LAist.com)

Parents apply to have their children in the toy loan program via a one-page form.

The program has a secondary goal: to build relationships with the parents who accompany their children to the toy loan centers so that they have access to other services offered by the host organization – be it a school, a county job training office or nonprofit.

Without regular contact, Gonzalez Camacho and her staff had to be creative about what to do to keep children and families engaged.

Boy opens gift

John Huizar opens a gift from the Toy Loan program.

(With permission from the Los Angeles County Toy Loan Program)

So they turned. And instead of borrowing toys, they decided to give away new toys that had been donated by local toy companies.

But it also had an underlying motive: to keep children in online school classes. One idea was Toys for Attendance, which provided points and small incentive toys for children who consistently tuned in to their Zoom classes. And at the end of the semester, the kids got a whole bunch of toys to keep.

Meet a Toyrarian

At the toy loan center at a county office in East LA, I met Community Health Worker Evelyn Meneses. She works as a “Toyrarian” in toy lending language, which means she is a toy librarian and manages the loan program.

Woman holding a stuffed toy in front of a door decorated with colored paper and balloon carvings.

Toyrarian Evelyn Meneses has one of the sumptuous dolls to give away to children in the Toy Loan program in East LA

(Sharon McNary

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LAist.com)

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 closed lending, Meneses sent the used toy back to the central depot and shifted gears to make giveaway programs. Now, when she receives shipments of toys, they are handed out to children at drive-through events.

Some of the toys were also distributed through the county’s Adopt-a-Family program.

A girl opens a gift with her family and looks on

A girl whose family is part of the Adopt-a-Family program in LA County is opening gifts from the Toy Loan program.

(Courtesy Los Angeles County Toy Loan Program)

Toy donations Welcome

Families are excited to see the toy loan program start up again, Meneses said. The repayment of toy loans will depend on the progress of the pandemic and on each of the host organizations and staff and volunteers.

And when it eases, the toys in the warehouse are sprung out of quarantine and returned to toy loan centers again.

Man loading colorful toy cars in the back of a pickup truck

Larry Fobbs, a supervisor with the Toy Loan program, loads toys into a truck on the way to Toy Loan centers

(Sharon McNary

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LAist.com)

The toy loan program receives money, donations of new toys, used toys that are in good condition and books suitable for children up to 17 years. Those that cannot be lent to children due to the difficulty of disinfecting after each use can end up being given to families to keep.

The program is always looking for new places that have volunteers available consistently for at least two hours a 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 can also see more details on the program’s website.

What do you want to know about how we play in LA?

And how do you play? Sharon McNary would like to hear your questions and stories about affordable, accessible and inclusive ways we stay active for physical and mental health. 🚵🏻‍♀️ 🎳 🛶 🏕 ⚽️ 💃 🏄🏾‍♂️ 👨🏿‍🦽 🏃🏽‍♀️ 🛹🏻‍♀️

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