A different kind of library

Karla Pastores
A toy library for underprivileged kids set up by a group multiplies into a long-term project
TOY STORY. Edsel Ramirez poses with kids and donors at the Toy Library in Bgy. Loyola Heiights, Quezon City. Photo by Kai Pastores
It all started, as with many great ideas, with friendly banter among good friends.

“The idea for putting up a play area in Barangay Loyola Heights came to us when Harvey and I were talking about projects we can do for the community,” said Edsel Ramirez, an entrepreneur and father of two.

The “Harvey” in this story is Harvey Keh, founder and executive director of Acts of Hope for the Nation Foundation (AHON), a non-profit organization that helps rebuild and refurnish public elementary school libraries. Edsel, a fellow nation builder, was one of Harvey’s go-to guys for community projects. Naturally, the two men wound up tackling a community project for the children of Loyola Heights, where both are based.  

“I learned from Carn [Abella, of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation] about this toy library that they built in Thailand,” Harvey recalled, “and it got me thinking, why not try it out here?”

Children playing in the streets is a common sight in the Philippines. The lack of good, safe, and clean parks in the metropolis forces youngsters to live out their childhood in the dangerous streets of Manila. While it is the adults’ responsibility to keep children away from the streets, we also cannot keep them from playing and being kids.

Thus began a community-based initiative that would benefit young children. In 2011, the first toy library was opened to the kids of Loyola Heights. It was born out of the goodwill and teamwork of the community and the barangay officials.
PLAY TIME. Children enjoying playing with toys at the Toy Library. Photo by Karla Pastores
Bringing people together

Harvey, who had ties with the local government, pitched the idea to Barangay Captain Caesar Marquez and urged him to provide space in the barangay hall that would serve as the toy library. Marquez found the idea appealing and set aside one of the barangay’s function rooms for that purpose.

Once Marquez gave them the green light for the project, Edsel started the hands on work. Using social media, the team — now composed of Edsel, Edsel’s wife Jennifer, Harvey, and their friends Aika Robredo and Jules Falzado — solicited donations of toys and supplies for the budding library. However, they did not want the project to be a “dole out” program.

As with AHON Foundation’s model, they believed community involvement was key to foster “co-ownership.” The toy library is theirs to use and theirs to sustain. Aika and Jules were tasked to set up a system of enrollment for the families and train the parents to serve as the volunteer librarians alongside the barangay’s day care teachers.

The response from social media and residents was overwhelming. In a short span of time, they were able to collect materials, shelves, and lots of toys from more affluent families in the nearby communities. Edsel’s own house served as a warehouse for the donations.

“Aside from asking the people in the house to oversee the painting of the room, we also sorted the toys at our house,” Edsel narrated, “then we shelved the toys and readied them for play.”

The toy library opened in June 2012. Throughout the first year of operation, Jennifer and the Ramirez daughters, Jessica and Justine, were frequent visitors to the barangay hall. “The family regularly visits the place to check on operations,” Edsel said. “They see what still needs to be done and give suggestions to Ate Gemma [of Barangay Loyola Heights].”

Loyola Heights’ toy library became so successful that, after a year, new partners started to express interest.

Mika Millar and Boom Enriquez, friends from the Ninoy and Cory Aquino Foundation (NCAF), were impressed with the library. “They urged the family to make it into a national initiative,” said Edsel. “We told them we’d go for it as long as there will be a team to help us with the work. Sila ang second part ng story ng Toy Library (They’re the second part of the Toy Library’s story).”

ISLAND OF HOPE. Philippine Toy Library has exported the model to other community areas across the Philippines. Photo by Karla Pastores

Sharing the love

With the help of volunteers from NCAF, the Philippine Toy Library (PTL) nationwide initiative was launched.

To date, PTL has established community-based play areas in places such as Marikina, Pampanga, Palawan, Cagayan de Oro, and Zamboanga. What were once drab and unused spaces are now filled with the laughter and imagination of young children, with toys provided generously by partners and the host communities.

Aside from play areas, PTL is now seeking to expand its programs to include various activities for parents and families. Among the events they have planned are storytelling workshops, child trauma counseling through play therapy, disaster preparedness through children’s stories, and art workshops.

For Edsel and the team, all these are to give underprivileged children a chance at a memorable childhood — to experience the joy of play. “Gusto namin mapaglaruan ng mga kabataan sa neighborhood ‘yong mga laruang nakapagbigay saya sa aming anak.” (We wanted the rest of the kids in our neighborhood to enjoy playing the same toys that brought joy to our own kids.)

In the end, the whole community benefits, observed Edsel. “Most often, [the parents and community] are really excited and happy to help because the ones who benefit are closest to their hearts — their children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren.

“I hear stories from the nanays (mothers) and the kids themselves: they are able to play with toys that they otherwise could not afford to buy. They can play in a space much bigger than their own house. They have discovered and played with, for the first time, Lego toys. It is these stories that give us strength to pursue our mission to set up more play areas for more kids,” he said.

“We just want them to play. And if play and playing with playmates will help them be better persons, then so be it. Bonus na iyon.” (That’s the bonus.)

For those who want to help, donate or volunteer to help develop more Toy Libraries all over the country, you can get in touch with Edsel Ramirez at ramirez.edsel@gmail.com or you can also visit PTL’s Facebook page– Rappler.com

Comments are welcome at kai.pastores@gmail.com