Published in The Chronicle

December 21, 2023

By Maureen Murphy

WILLIMANTIC — A new “Toy Lending Library” service for children of all ages came to life at Willimantic Library this month.

“It’s new and exciting,” said Dan Paquette, director of Willimantic Public Library. “Anyone with a library card can check out items, which are available for children from birth through teenage years.”

The goal is to provide social and educational benefits to encourage creativity and imagination.

Diana Caty and Mary Didiuk were inspired to give back to the community, and in 2019, they established Traveling Toys, Inc. At first the toys were just for children, but Caty noticed teens were struggling the most during the pandemic, so they decided to include toys and games for older children as well.

Nintendo and other video games are available at Willimantic Public Library to be used in the area dedicated to youth by teens who are interested.

Toys, which are allowed to go home with the child, may be checked out for three weeks. Caty said the toys often return quickly so the child may try another.

“Kids outgrow things quickly, especially at the youngest ages, and developmentally move on to other options,” she said.

Caty said this service is great for parents, too, as they may explore toys and games for their children without taking on the financial burden of replacing them quickly.

The Toy Lending Library opened officially last Wednesday and Paquette reports that a preschool age child was “already playing with them. We know it’s going to be a hit,” he said. “It’s also better for the environment to use the toys as much as possible instead of throwing them away when they are done with them.”

Traveling Toys Inc. is supported by grants from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and other funding sources. Liberty Bank Foundation was instrumental in providing the grant money to establish the Toy Lending Library at Willimantic Public Library.

“Willimantic is the seventh library with whom we have partnered, and Dan, Lisa and Amanda” are perfect for the collaboration, Caty said.

Communities are prioritized based on need, using the acronym ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employment. The concept is that working families may have income but not enough cash flow to cover extras like stimulating toys.

“Why shouldn’t every child have the same access to nice toys as everyone else? We try to ease the financial burden on families. It’s nice to think we are supporting children of families who don’t have the resources. We’re in the right place” at Connecticut libraries, Caty said.

“Our relationship with libraries occurs in phases,” Caty added. “We meet with them to see what they are looking for and what we can provide.”

Together they establish a budget and recommend an amount to the funder. A grant is submitted, and once received, “the library buys and owns the toys,” she said.

Evaluation of the toy lending programs is part of the program, and Caty and Dudiuk stay in touch to “see how things are going,” Caty said. They track the percentage of toys missing or broken and plan to replace those that are no longer viable.

“We are a work in progress,” Caty said. “We are still learning about different needs in the communities.”

Other Connecticut-based Toy Lending Libraries average between 60-87 toys checked out per month, with 10-15 children per day coming into the libraries to play with them there.

The toys are kept in plastic containers for ease of access and transportation. Currently, Traveling Toys Inc. has one grant pending and nine other libraries interested in participating.

Caty believes strongly that partnering with libraries is the right way to go.

“It’s a good feeling to think we are helping children and teens. The library is a good place and it’s safe for them to gather there,” she said.

Caty and Didiuk are also hoping to pilot a program to take books to children who are not able to visit the library.

Paquette said visiting during the holidays is a great time for children to check out the Toy Lending Library at Willimantic Public Library. Family Movie Night is Thursday (with a visit from Santa) from 5-8 p.m. A Winter Scavenger Hunt is scheduled Tuesday, noon to 8 p.m., and an Antarctica Expedition VR is on the agenda for Wednesday from 2-5 p.m.