Pittsburgh Plays It Forward With Holiday Toy Project

Play It Forward is a terrific resource for regional families during the holidays. Building upon the idea of toy sharing, organizers collect gently used toys, stuffed animals and more to redistribute to families in need. I think it is an excellent idea and the fact that they received over 50,000 toys in 2013 suggests that a lot of people in the community agree. I’m particularly fond of the fact that they collects items for teenagers which is typically not the case. Having worked in foster care for several years, I can assure you that 15 year olds “feel” the lack of a gift (and the lack of someone caring about them) as much as a 7-year-old. 15 year olds are also the ones who will sacrifice a gift so their siblings get something when they know money is tight. 15 year olds deserve our holiday giving as much as 7 year olds and toddlers and babies.

PS – I’m publishing this on Halloween because I know a lot of families set aside costumes as playthings so you might consider doing that this year and sharing those items with neighbors. Just a thought of a neat post-Halloween trick!

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I had a chance to talk with Heather Starr Fiedler about the project.

What is Play It Forward? Play it Forward Pittsburgh is gently used toy drive in the Pittsburgh region. We collect gently used toys, books, games and stuffed animals and give them to families in need each holiday season.

What inspired you to launch this project? My cofounder Amy Kier and I were inspired to start the project by our own messy playrooms. We realized that the toys our kids had outgrown were still in excellent shape and had a lot of play left in them. We talked one day about wanting a place where we could donate them to local families in need, rather than dropping them into a faceless donation bin. I found a local family to donate a carload full of toys to and Play it Forward was born. We started a Facebook page and asked if there were others out there that would like to do the same. Within days we had hundreds of followers and donations started rolling in.

Is there a stigma attached to donating used toys/books for holiday gifts? There really isn’t. Even those of us who aren’t “in need’ see no shame in trading toys or books with neighbors and friends. Kids really don’t care if something is new in the box. If it’s new to them, it’s new. End of story. They don’t care about price tags and fancy packaging. That’s the beauty of it. And the families we serve are so appreciative to have the help. It really takes a huge burden off of them at what can often be a very stressful holiday time.

Items waiting for their new home
Items waiting for their new home

How many volunteers are involved? What sorts of tasks do they perform? We have dozens of volunteers each year. Volunteers can donate their time or their treasures (toys or money) 😉 We invite families, groups or individuals to come help us unload, clean and sort the toys in advance of our “shop for free” day. It’s a great activity for people of all ages. Even the smallest children can help. Often they’re our biggest helpers because they can identify which pieces go with which toys! In addition, we need lots of help on the shopping day itself to keep the day running smoothly. We have people helping families shop, checking them in and out, restocking toys, etc.

How many families attend the event? What are your “requirements” for a family to seek your support?
We have more and more families attend every year. Last year I believe we gave toys to nearly 2,000 local children. We don’t really have any “requirements’. We believe in the honor system and helping all those who need it, in spite of their “official” circumstance. Sometimes people live paycheck to paycheck and the cost of Christmas is just too much. The first family I gave my toys to would never have passed any typical “requirement” criteria. She was a widowed mother with a young son that was having a very tough year and needed some help. I was happy to be able to help her when she couldn’t qualify for help elsewhere. That’s why we don’t have requirements. We want to help anyone that feels they need it.

You allow for children up to age 16 while most programs stop around 12. Why did you make that decision? What types of items are appropriate to donate for 14-16 year olds? We have a lot of families that have multiple children and often there is a teenager in the house. We love to be able to send them home with something as well. It’s difficult, though. We obviously don’t get as many donations for older kids or teenagers. The more people can “think outside the (toy)box” and donate things that might be appropriate for older kids we would love it. Things like makeup, jewelry, CDs, art sets, sporting equipment, etc. is usually great. I clean out my personal closet and donate unused purses, bath and body sets and other items that I think teenagers might like.

In the past, you’ve told me that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families are welcome. Why is it important to you to be inclusive?  It honestly never occurred to me not to be inclusive. I don’t see LGBT families as any different from any other family. Everyone is welcome, welcome to donate, volunteer or receive toys.

Toy Drive PIttsburgh
Volunteers ready to open the doors for their neighbors in 2013

If I have items to donate, but can’t organize a drive – where can I bring my donations? People can drop off at our drop off locations which are local businesses that have agreed to collect toys. They are listed on our website under Drop Off locations. We’re happy to announce that, thanks to a very generous donation by the mall, we are going to have a NEW HOME this year inside Century III Mall. From December 1 through the 12th, we’ll have a huge space to collect, sort and organize the toys. We’ll be able to welcome groups of all sizes to volunteer during those two weeks. In fact, you can go sign up now at the link below! It really will be a “12 Days of Christmas” Then we’ll do our “Shop for Free” event in the same space on Saturday, December 13

What items are in the most demand? Are there items that you would like to see more of – Young Adult Fiction, DVDs, infant toys, etc?  We’d most definitely like to see more older items. We get an awful lot of toddler and baby toys, books and stuffed animals. As the age increases, the donations decrease. I recognize that’s natural, as kids play with less toys and they play with them longer, but the more donations we can get for those older kids, the happier we are

What’s the most unique item that’s been donated? Did it find a home? Great question. We get a lot of interesting items. Last year we got a boat bed. It was literally a bed shaped like a boat. And yes, it found a home.

How do you distribute items? Is there anything folks should know before they show up to get in line?
We distribute items on a first-come, first-served basis,until everything is gone, and allow folks to take only a certain amount of toys per child (in the past it has been 3 toys per child). We have people form a line and we hand out numbers to those in line. Then we call in the numbers in groups of 20 or so to “shop”. Once enough people clear the space, we let another group in. People should come early and be prepared to wait a bit (comfy shoes) and bring their own bag if possible.

Are there any stories or anecdotes that stay with you, either of donors, volunteers or recipients?
Every year there are stories that make us cry. There’s a lot of crying going on. Our volunteers are amazing people who inspire me every day with their dedication. Some organize their neighborhoods and Girl Scout troops and fill up car load after car load never stop. Our recipients are wonderful as well. They are so appreciative. Last year a woman and her husband called in sick to work and waited in line for hours to get toys for a neighbor’s children. The neighbor was a less-than-stellar parent and this woman often would take the children meals and help care for them when the parent was absent. She felt terrible that they weren’t going to get any presents so she did everything in her power to get those kids a Christmas. I was so moved.

How is Pittsburgh a region where people embrace the concept of reuse (gently used items) and generosity (paying it forward)? Pittsburgh has been wonderful. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and hard work ethic along with our strong sense of community spirit makes this a wonderful place for Play it Forward to thrive. And it has thrived. We started the first year with just about 5,000 toys. Last year we estimate had at least 50,000 toys. We expect this year, our fourth, to be even bigger.

To find out more, visit the Play It Forward website to find a donation spot or information on how to volunteer or sign up for toys. You can find them on Facebook, too. Please share this information on your Facebook page and elsewhere so people know it is available!  And please make an extra effort to look for items that might appeal to older youth and teens.

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