The pandemic has forced major changes for Charlton Toy Library, which has helped families in SE7 and beyond for nearly 40 years. LAURA DAY found out more about a much-needed local charity.
When a Charlton resident was rehoused to a home without white goods, Charlton Toy Library was one of the organisations that were able to help. When a lady had triplets and needed a triple buggy, the toy library was able to get it for them thanks to support from the local community.
“Whatever we ask this local community for, they come up with it,” says Janine Khoshnevisan, the toy library’s treasurer. She describes the Charlton community as being full of kindness and empathy.
Since it was founded in 1982, Charlton Toy Library has helped families with children under five who are vulnerable, lending toys and equipment, providing an outreach service and community sessions.
This has always been its mission – to help families who Janine describes as being in “dire straits”. But 2020 turned its usual offering upside down.
While its stay and play sessions, craft mornings, storytelling and singing with Susan on a Friday morning are no longer part of the weekly calendar, the team have been working tirelessly in other ways to make sure the community knows it is still there to help. From fundraising for food vouchers and cataloguing its entire inventory, to community treasure hunts and outreach services, Charlton Toy Library has been available throughout, despite the challenges.
Based in Charlton House, it aims to help families with children under the age of five across Greenwich borough. Ordinarily, during term time, families can come to the toy library and for a very small membership fee, hire educational toys and games as well as high-quality dressing up clothes and child safety equipment such as baby monitors and stair gates.
The library has a play area too, but this has been closed since March. “We haven’t reopened the play area because we don’t feel that we can do so safely,” says Janine. It now lends more items for free to make up for the loss of the play area. The play mats have been lifted and the room is now used to store equipment that is going out to families, and those coming on for quarantine and cleaning – all part of the toy library’s new click-and-collect service, which began in the summer.
But the lending side of Charlton Toy Library reflects just half of its work. The other half is its outreach service, which has received funding from BBC Children In Need for seven years running to pay for an outreach worker, Sharon Jay. The library has just received a further two years’ funding from Children In Need, which Janine says is “absolutely fabulous”.
As the outreach worker, Sharon goes out to families, assesses their needs, and comes back to the library to load up on child safety equipment, clothing and toys. “She goes out to families that are struggling so much they would have really struggled to come in and access our main service,” says Janine, adding that Sharon will help families complete forms if English isn’t their first language. “We don’t charge them for anything whatsoever.” In the year to September 2020, Charlton Toy Library helped 117 children in 67 families through its community outreach alone.
“Outreach was a very little part of what we did maybe 20 years ago. It’s now on a par with the main service. We cannot meet demand. There are more families out there than we could possibly hope to to deal with.”
Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop the toy library. For the second year running, it has been fundraising to supply shopping vouchers for families in need. In the past, the library team had parcelled up food hampers and giving them out to families. This new way, Janine says, means families can shop for exactly what they need in line with their needs.
“We’ve aimed big this year and thought we’d go for £2,000,” she says. To date, the library has raised £2,580, which will buy £50 Asda vouchers for vulnerable families. “We knew there were 40 families that could do with the food. We are absolutely made up.”
The toy library ran a campaign to provide as many Christmas presents for children as possible, with toys donated through its Amazon wish list. At the last count, Sharon had delivered presents to 44 children.
While the toy library’s usual activities are on pause, it has still been able to arrange successful outdoor activities for families, with Halloween and Christmas treasure hunts in Charlton Park drawing long lines of families.
“I couldn’t see the end of the queue,” says Janine. “Nobody complained about waiting. We were expecting maybe 30 or 40 people. About 100 or 120 children turned up in the space of two hours. It was just amazing.”
While no one knows what next year will look like, Charlton Toy Library will continue its click-and-collect service for as long as it’s needed. “It just doesn’t feel the same,” says Janine. “We’re waiting to hear what we are allowed to do and not allowed to do, and adapting accordingly. It’s quite hard.”
Charlton Toy Library is also thinking about what activities it could offer outdoors, given the success of its treasure hunts. “We would dearly love to be able to reopen again,” Janine says. “If we could do an open-air singing group, that would be brilliant.”
The toy library has given assistance to 278 families in total this year, helping 423 children. For the families, it means a huge amount. “They are just absolutely bowled over by the generosity of people,” says Janine. “We can at least alleviate some of the stresses and the worries in their lives so that they can focus on trying to get themselves back on their feet.”
To find out more, to support Charlton Toy Library or become a trustee, visit charltontoylibrary.co.uk.
LAURA DAY is a freelance journalist specialising in health and wellbeing. She is based in Hither Green.
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