Caty Helps ‘Traveling Toys’ Meet a Need
In 2019, Diana Caty, an immigration attorney, and her friend Mary Didiuk, a scientist, founded their own non-profit organization, Traveling Toys Inc.
In a very short time, the non-profit has gone on to partner with nine Connecticut libraries and counting to fulfill its mission of installing toy libraries to provide access to high-quality, age-appropriate toys for children and teens of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Through my experience as an immigration attorney in Connecticut, I’ve seen great need,” says Diana, a Guilford resident. “Mary and I both wanted to find a project to give back to our community, and Mary thought of this idea of a toy library. We both loved the concept, and we knew it had such potential. I felt that partnering with public libraries would have the greatest impact. Instead of being in one location, we could be across the state.”
Diana had many good reasons to connect the program with libraries.
“As we know, libraries aren’t just for books anymore. They’re really community centers and have offerings for all ages. They’re a trusted institution in every community. They also have a mechanism for borrowing in place; all one needs is a library card.”
Diana is a fan of her hometown library, Guilford Free Public Library, and her hometown of Guilford. She and her husband, Michael G. Caty, M.D., moved to Guilford in 2012 from Buffalo, New York. The couple has three grown children and two grandchildren.
“I feel very fortunate to live in Guilford,“ says Diana. ”It’s really such a close-knit community, with such community spirit.“
Traveling Toys targets assisting in communities where combined ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population numbers are at an increased rate.
“When you go to these towns, you can’t help but see the commitment from the librarians, but also you can’t help but to notice the poverty,” says Diana.
While Traveling Toys secures all of the funding for each toy library, the program's success lies in truly partnering with each local library, says Diana. Each partnership is undertaken in full collaboration with the library’s children’s and teen librarians.
“We couldn’t be more impressed with the librarians that we’ve met,” says Diana. “They really know their children and teens, and they want to do everything they can to support them. We’re grateful to our librarians for all their energy and commitment. Both Mary and I feel having these partnerships is so valuable.”
It takes about a year from the point of setting up a partnership and securing funding to setting up a toy library. Once the partnership is established, the two-person team that powers Traveling Toys (also known as Diana and Mary) gets to work to identify sources of grant funding and write the grant applications.
“We either have a grant in mind, or we’ll find a grant,” often by connecting with local community foundations, says Diana.
“When we talk to the heads of the foundations, they’re a wealth of knowledge. We feel very lucky to have received very good advice from the foundations.”
Once the grant is awarded, “...we transfer all the funds to the library. They buy the toys, and they own the toys,” she explains. “We offer to go in and unpack and help them set up all the toys, and they enjoy doing it, too.”
Once a toy library is established, Traveling Toys stays in touch, she adds.
“We contact them every three to six months,” says Diana. “We want to stay involved because we want the program to be a success. If toys are not returned, or if they need more toys, we are committed to go for more funding.”
Each toy library’s contents are individually displayed in clear plastic storage containers, which have an attached color photo of the item inside. The containers are stacked in a communal location where kids can peruse the inventory.
“We had the opening of our latest toy library in Norwich [last] week, and literally within 10 minutes of opening up, a mother and child came in and saw the toys at eye level. It was exciting,” says Diana.
Beyond the cooperative communal space each toy library creates are several other tangible benefits. One is easing the financial burden on families who may not be able to afford these items for their kids and teens to experience. On the educational side, access to toys for free play has been shown to enhance reading, math, and science skills. As a conservation benefit, each toy library provides for environmentally-conscious reuse and repurposing of toys.
To date, Traveling Toys has opened toy libraries in Westbrook, New London, Groton, West Haven, Preston, and Norwich municipal libraries. Three more toy libraries are now set to open within the next two months in Old Saybrook, Willimantic, and Ansonia. Additionally, Traveling Toys has one grant pending and is collaborating with seven more libraries.
“It’s very exciting. It definitely feels like we have momentum,” says Diana.
The non-profit’s original concept was serving children up to age 12. After the pandemic, that changed to include serving teens due to the noticeable rise in social isolation created by the COVID-19 shutdown.
Moving forward, Traveling Toys will continue to be open to new ideas to meet evolving needs.
“I feel as if we’re really a work in progress,” says Diana, who has shifted much of her daily work focus to supporting Traveling Toys. “As we’ve grown, we’ve learned about the people we serve, and we’re adapting.”
For example, “...a challenge we have is that we’re reaching children and teens who are able to get to the library, but we need to look out for those who can’t get there because of lack of transportation,” she says.
To help address that need, a pilot home delivery program with one of the toy library partners is currently being developed.
In addition to connecting with interested libraries, the non-profit is now hoping to begin working with other established community organizations across Connecticut, which may be a perfect location for a future toy library.
“We just keep brainstorming. There’s always more we can do,” says Diana.
Tax-deductible donations are welcome by sending a check payable to Traveling Toys, Inc., 1 State Street, Guilford, CT 06443. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.travelingtoys.info.