The Corduroy in this real-life story lived in the Toy Lending Center at the Santa Fe Community College until it closed in December. For over 20 years, this lending library served parents and caregivers with 2000 toys for babies through 8-year-olds — blocks, games, puzzles, dramatic play and dress-up items, dolls, puppets, counting toys, Legos and more — to borrow, absolutely free, for up to a month. When the child outgrew or got tired of the toy, Mom or Dad could go back to the center for one better suited to the child’s developing abilities and interests.
In June 2012, CYFD restructured its statewide TTAP network and consolidated the eight programs across New Mexico into four. The Santa Fe and Farmington TTAPs were absorbed into “UNM Northern,” based in Taos. At the same time, CYFD removed toy lending centers from the scope of work covered under the TTAP contract. This meant that each of the eight statewide toy lending libraries had to find a new funding source or shut down.
In effect, Santa Fe’s toy lending center became the orphan child of the community college — on its premises but not funded — at a time when college enrollment was sky high and space more precious than ever.
“We were very encouraged at first by the college’s commitment to preserving the Toy Lending Center,” said Leigh Fernandez, program manager of Santa Fe’s TTAP for 10 years, now under contract with UNM Northern. But in late summer she received word from college administrators giving just a few weeks’ notice to shut the toy center so the Continuing Education department could move into its space. What was a little bear in green overalls to do?
At that point the Brindle Foundation, a family philanthropic foundation focusing on early childhood, stepped in with a small grant allowing the center to operate through the year, in hopes that a long-term funding arrangement could be reached by then.
“We’re about babies,” said Kim Straus, manager of the Brindle Foundation, “That’s what our focus is.” Brindle’s close relationship to the college’s early childhood program has included a $35,000 grant for childcare scholarships to college students so they could finish their degree. Last spring it sponsored an “appreciative inquiry summit” to bring vested interests together to consider how the college could become a center of excellence in early childhood education. “My partner and I have an 8-year-old,” Straus added, “and when our son was young we were there all the time!”
The nature of the Toy Lending Center aroused similarly passionate feelings among others those who passed through. “We watched children grow up there,” Fernandez said. “We may have called it a library, but it was an interactive library. Children could play with toys before they took them home. Parents could check out toys for four weeks, with an option to renew, but many came in every week because it was their child’s favorite time of the week.” Children grow through toys so quickly that the expense of replacing them challenges many parents. Access to high-quality toys at the lending center allowed parents to replace toys as soon as their child was ready to progress to a new one.
Then there was what I call the “stealth parent education” component. For most of its history, the center was staffed by a child development specialist who could answer parents’ questions and guide them to toys suitable for their child’s age and developmental stage, while providing a compassionate, knowing ear.
“I would say our fastest-growing audience in the past few years was grandparents,” Fernandez said, noting Santa Fe’s many retirees have grandchildren who live in town or come for visits. She saw many of these grandparents come in before each visit, stocking up on toys and games for the little ones.
I couldn’t get a figure for the program’s operating budget, since it fell under the broader scope of the TTAP contract. Fernandez said they devoted at least $1000 a year to replenishing and refurbishing toys. When more money became available, perhaps because of a temporary staff vacancy, they would move more money into the budget for higher-priced equipment.
Straus drafted a letter in November to Dr. Ana Guzmán, the community college’s new president, on behalf of a group of advocates including representatives from SFCC, New Mexico Highlands University and the Community Development Institute, asking her to visit the center and observe its value before considering closure. The team of cosigners requested a meeting with Guzmán to discuss “how we can preserve this incredible community resource at Santa Fe Community College.”
They got no response. At the end of November Fernandez was informed that the toy center would need to be out when the Brindle grant expired. On December 10, not with a bang but a whimper, the center closed.
And what of Cordoruy and his fellow orphans?
The majority of the toys have absorbed into the classrooms and resource library of Kids Campus, the college’s childcare center for infants to pre-K — “with the hopeful intent of getting it going again,” Fernandez said. Some went to early childhood programs in the community and other toy lending libraries, and a few to the center’s regular clients. Some were boxed up and put in storage for a short time, “but that just didn’t feel right,” she said. “They need to be used.”
The sad thing is, if the decision to close the Toy Lending Center was strictly financial, the Community College did not exhaust the possibilities for keeping it open. “We had provided the physical location but none of the operational money,” said Janet Wise, the college’s executive director of marketing and public relations. “And when CYFD stopped the funding — well, unfortunately we can’t keep things going if there’s no funding.”
Yet Brindle’s readiness was perhaps a stone unturned. “If the college had been willing to embrace the toy center, I’m sure we would have given them money to run it,” said Straus. “We certainly were supportive of the toy lending library continuing at the college, but they didn’t see it that way.”
“It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, let’s go in and get a toy,’” Fernandez said. “It was a much richer experience than that, by the quality of the materials we had. It broke my heart. I hope it’s not the end of the story.”
And perhaps it isn’t. With so many of the toys still available, and Brindle likely to put up some chunk of the operating budget, we may not have seen the last of the toy library — particularly if the community expresses a desire for its return. Add your voice. Write us at email@example.com with any memories or wishes of your own for the future of the Toy Lending Center.