Support Sought For Harwich-based Cape Toy Library

By: William F. Galvin

Deborah S. Willsea is seeking to create the Cape Cod Toy Library in Harwich Port. To use play as a child development tool for kids across the Cape. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTOS

HARWICH — Play is an essential component of child development, fostering education and mental well-being. But in today's society, with children having two working parents, there may not be an opportunity for children to get together, and play can be challenging.

There is an initiative underway seeking to create a safe, enriching play-literacy learning environment for families and children, providing toys, books and resource materials to support child development. The Cape Cod Toy Library is being proposed for a location in Harwich Port.

The endeavor is not new to Deborah S. Willsea, a Chatham resident, who is founder and president of Cape Cod Toy Library, Inc. Willsea was a co-founder of a toy library in Rochester, N.Y., which started as a Rochester Junior Women's Club project 32 years ago. That project is now the Toy Library at Lincoln Branch Library, part of the Rochester public library system.

“Our mission is to provide enriching, accessible, culturally sensitive, educational environments and resources that promote learning through play experience to foster healthy child development,” Willsea said of the family play-literacy learning center she plans to establish in the former Woelfel and Sons Plumbing building at 432 Route 28.

Willsea holds a bachelor's degree in sociology from St. Lawrence University and a master's degree in development, learning and instruction from the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education. Her 40-year experience spans contributions in the field of education with a focus on reaching undeserved populations through community-based organizations, museums and libraries.

“I've been working at this for more than a year, trying every angle on it,” Willsea told The Chronicle on Monday. “I've spent a year researching Cape communities, concerns and issues.”

Willsea said she has met with early childhood educators, representatives of the mental health field and parents and grandparents. She determined the greatest need for such a facility is on the Lower Cape because there are fewer families and people here, so social service programs are located on the Upper Cape.

“Play is becoming more and more a critical need, it affects children's relations,” Willsea said. “Families are more and more isolated today. We want them to get out of that isolation and have social communication.”

Her plan is to establish a library that will serve the entire Cape, but based on the Cape geography it's hard to find a location that is perfect for everybody. Willsea said the next goal is to establish a mobile library for outreach into communities across the Cape.

Members of the library will be able to take out the toys. Also available will be children's books and adult books about child development and how to integrate play into childrens' lives. There will also be reference and resource books for people who work with children, Willsea said.

She has been looking for the right place to locate a toy library, and the Harwich building where she hopes to establish the library seems perfect.

The project does face an obstacle, financing. Willsea said the organization has just received non-profit status and is looking for an angel to come forward to assist, potentially purchasing the building for the library or holding onto it. It generates income from three second-floor apartments and has some additional space that could be rented.

She said the library eventually could be in a position to pay rent, but based on expenses, a period of forgiven rent would be a big help. Money is needed for renovations and a $100,000 fund-raising campaign is underway to cover a deposit, insurance, inspection, appraisal fees and other up-front costs.

Willsea said there is a memorandum of understanding with the property owner and an up-front payment is due by the beginning of February to take the property off the market. There is an agreed upon price and a closing date by June 1.

“We'd appreciate donations in any amount, $5 to $100 or more,” Willsea said. She said there is a “Take Action Page” on the organization's website where donations can be made, people can register as volunteers and provide feedback. Willsea said public and private grants will be sought to assist in funding the program.

There will be membership fees for the library, but there will also be scholarships. One way of raising funds is to request area businesses to provide memberships for their employees, she said.

The play-literacy learning center will be for the whole Cape community and will offer a lending library of hundreds of education toys and resources; a community play space accessible year-round; educational programs for children and families; professional training for children providers, educators and more; and customized services to meet the unique needs of the Cape.

It will be a replication of successful toy library models across the country, Willsea said. There are a few hundred such libraries in the United States, about the same number in Canada and a couple of hundred more across the world. A lot of libraries now have toys, but there is not a focus and an expertise behind the use of those toys, she said.

The hope is the community will come forward to assist in bringing the library to fruition. One way residents can contribute is by re-purposing and recycling household materials that can be used for other purposes, such as corks, paper towel tubes, bottle caps, “things that can be used for creative purposes for children,” Willsea said. Toy donations will also be gratefully accepted.

Willsea calls the facility a specialized library, not a public one, but one with its own board of directors and a lot of advisers and people participating in the shaping of the library. Once the up-front payment is made in February, Willsea said she hopes the library could be operating by June, but there will be significant renovations that could take up to nine months.

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