The play's the thing

Brentford Toy Library Celebrates its Twelfth Year


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Brentford Toy Library, St Paul's Parish Centre, St Paul's Road, Brentford TW8, 020 8568 7442.

Thanks to the energy and dedication of a group of local parents, Brentford's children are enjoying a superb recreation resource at next to no cost.

St Paul's Parish Centre in Brentford is the scene of an imaginative local venture that has turned into a storming success - a playtime paradise for local kids and a lifesaver for their beleaguered parents!

The Brentford Toy Library is celebrating its 12th successful year in 2004 and is a fine example of 'from little acorns…' It began life in 1992 as a cupboard in a room in St Paul's, containing a few donated toys. Now it's expanded to airy, spacious rooms with cupboards packed with everything guaranteed to delight small people, from talking toys and tambourines to cars, clowns, building bricks and a baby gym, with an extensive video lending library. Its Tuesday and Thursday morning sessions, 10am-noon, are hugely popular and it's now extending its services to encompass Chiswick.

The current driving force is local mother Louisa Bellini, a woman of seemingly unlimited energy and dedication. Like many of the volunteers involved in running the Library, Louisa first discovered it as a new mother herself, grateful for the existence of such a worthwhile local resource: 'It took a while to pluck up the courage to try it out as, as a first time mother, these new environments can be daunting. But it's such a great meeting place and it has been a wonderful way to integrate with the community and meet other parents.'

This is the joy of the Toy Library: it's brilliant for kids and can be a real lifesaver for adults too, particularly new parents trying to get used to the massive life changes that children bring. As Louisa says: 'If you want a breather, there is always another adult there to keep an eye on your child. You can sit, have a cup of tea, chat, get a moment to yourself, knowing your child is playing safely.'

The success of the project has from day one depended entirely on the efforts of the parents, who have volunteered in a variety of ways; setting up the sessions; forming a committee to arrange social and fundraising events and, particularly in Louisa's case, working to promote the service. Events have included fairs, bangers and mash evenings, Sponsored Toddles, a hugely successful Christmas party last year and BYOB gatherings for parents, hosted by volunteer Margaret Grogan - attendees pay £1 and get together for a drink and chat, whilst raising money for the Library. As Louisa comments: 'The social evenings are such a giggle - and it's nice to get to know the parents without the children around for once!' Plans are also afoot to throw a party to celebrate the Library's 12th birthday this year.

Membership of the Library is an amazingly reasonable £3 per annum for one child membership, £5 for a family, open to families in Brentford and Chiswick. Space permitting, visitors from other areas are welcome, paying £1 a session. Toys can be borrowed for 50p-£1 and videos hired for £1.50 for a fortnight.

October 2003 saw a well-deserved break for the Library. The European Social Fund awarded £30,000 to Hounslow Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership to generate toy libraries and Brentford received £6,000 to help it expand into Chiswick. £3,500 went on new toys; the hall was freshly decorated and refloored and a digital camera purchased, to be used to create a catalogue of toys available on loan. A key project was a highly professional mailing leaflet and here Louisa's training at the London College of Printing came in very handy: 'I really enjoyed doing it - it was a real challenge for me! A good friend 'Hawk' Norton designed the leaflet and helped arrange printing and then I found Greater London Marketing to do distribution for us - 21,000 leaflets in Brentford and Chiswick, which we really wanted to reach because there's no toy library there.'

But it's people who keep the Library going and it's people who are needed most in 2004. In the nature of things, parents become involved when their children are using the facility and then move on once the kids go to school. At present, Louisa is very much the lynchpin, many of her fellow committee members having recently left, so a vital priority is finding more volunteers: 'We need to keep the mums and dads aware of the fact that we need their help to keep going!'

The Library will be holding an AGM this month to appoint a new committee and Louisa is keen to welcome any parents who might be interested in becoming involved. It's to be hoped plenty of 'fresh blood' will come forward: this superb local resource is well deserving of support. As Louisa says: 'It's such a help to parents, particularly new ones; it doesn't break the bank and through it all of us - adults and children alike - have made good friends we'll keep.'

Neil McKelvie

This article was originally published in Westside Magazine and is reproduced with kind permission

February 23, 2004