Diane Petra next to a Toy Closet

Toy Division

When children are seen by the Yale New Haven Health system, the last thing they do after all the tests and treatments is pick out a toy. Doors are thrown open before an incredulous child, revealing board games, trains and cars, dolls and balls and countless other toys in their original packaging. The kindness of doctors and nurses and even the prospect of being healed hold nothing to that moment in a child’s imagination.

It’s a moment made possible by the Toy Closet Program, which has 11 such closets—bright chifforobe-style cabinets bearing the Toy Closet logo—in the main children’s hospital building. Keeping them stocked every day so that no child is left unenchanted requires the constant coordination of 20 volunteers with carts. Diane Petra (pictured above), who co-chairs the program for the Auxiliary, an organization of 85 members who execute fundraising and community outreach programs for the hospital, recalls a moment when one of the enchantees spotted her with a full cart, which only added more glitter to the magic act. “One little guy was walking down the hall… He had his IV pole. I was putting toys into the closet. And I said, ‘Are you almost ready to go home?’ And he said, ‘Not yet. Can I have whatever I want?’ And I said, ‘As soon as you’re ready to go home, you can have whatever you want.’ And he was just like, ‘I’m going to get better so fast!’”

sponsored by

Yale School of Music presents Roberto Prosseda

Petra would have loaded her cart that day in what Toy Closet volunteers think of as the landing area, a storage room that might once have housed a copier and shelves of office materials. Toys from that room also supply toy closets at 25 Yale New Haven outpatient facilities along the Connecticut shore, and the room itself is supplied by a much bigger storage area in the Yale New Haven basement complex. Donated toys are boxed there according to gender, age and sometimes destination. “I happen to be a basement rat,” Petra says, “which means… have to go down and then under the street—about a quarter-mile hike…There are two or three others who are willing to take that long walk, and bring the cart back with all these big boxes.”

Throughout the year, volunteers move toys according to an intricate schedule designed by co-chair Maureen Herbert. The rank of volunteers quadruples by necessity at the end of the year, when most of the toy drives take place. “December 10th through January 10th is maniacal,” says Petra, still incredulous after 15 years running the program—and after another holiday season has left the Auxiliary conference room overflowing with toys that don’t yet fit in the basement. “There’s one group that came from UNH and they stayed from 9 to 3 and they didn’t stop. It was a day when we had toys coming in here by the truckload, which was wonderful,” adding that if she and Billye Bradley, the Auxiliary assistant who is always onsite, had had to handle the influx alone, it would have been “insane.”

This speaks to the other magical thing about the Toy Closet: how sustainable it has been. According to Petra, many parents of children who were given a toy during a visit become Toy Closet activists, organizing drives in their communities. Sometimes the children themselves become activists, opening lemonade stands and asking invitees to their birthday parties to bring gifts for the Toy Closet instead.

The most elaborate of the Toy Closet drives is literally that—a convoy of motorcycles and ATVs packed with toys that travels to the children’s hospital from Libby’s MotoWorld, a recreational vehicle dealership overlooking the West River in New Haven. In their office next to a showroom filled with RVs of various colors and wheel counts—itself arguably a toy closet for adults—Karen Libby and George Libby showed me their year-round snack station, selling candy bars and potato chips to pay for each year’s “Toy Run.” They’ve been doing it for seven years, Libby estimates, each December buying toys with the proceeds. Then, on a designated Saturday morning, Keith Libby—sibling to Karen and George, and father of a Toy Closet recipient—dresses up as Santa Claus and, accompanied by a Mrs. Claus played by a gracious semi-retired associate named Rose Pysz, arrives at the children’s hospital entrance with the holiday-decorated, gift-bearing convoy. “They come with maybe 20 motorcycles, so this little atrium here is a little noisy to say the least,” Petra says. The entrance loop is temporarily closed to routine traffic so onlookers can enjoy the spectacle while the toys are unloaded.

Last year, according to Petra, Yale New Haven facilities were visited by child patients over 146,000 times, and each one of those visits would have ended with a toy to take home. While it’s been years since the Toy Closet needed to advertise for toy donations, maintaining the underlying infrastructure continues to require bright ideas. Some of the toy closets were used TV cabinets that Petra had picked up inexpensively, having them retrofitted and painted in the woodworking shop at her husband’s construction firm. Meanwhile, Petra knows who to call at every volunteer-rich New Haven-area university when the big December deliveries are imminent. She has taken boxes from the basement storage room to her barre exercise class in Guilford, where she knew a classmate who could get them the rest of the way to a facility in Old Saybrook. The Toy Closet has struck deals with retailers and wholesalers to get ring stack toys and rattles for infants and toddlers, plush bears for emergency room visitors, and nail polish and hand cream for teen girls’ makeup kits.

Thus maintained, the Toy Closet just passed its 25th year. The program was actually introduced to the hospital by local television news anchor and honorary Auxiliary board member Ann Nyberg, who had seen a similar program in action as a journalist in Oklahoma. As Nyberg described it to the New Haven Register in 2016, an Oklahoman girl who had just undergone a painful bone marrow extraction was given a key to a closet full of brand new toys. The girl picked out a baby doll and immediately began to comfort it.

Which suggests the final flourish of the Toy Closet Program. It softens a child’s memory of being a patient, while brightening her sense of what’s next should she have to return.

Toy Closet Program
by the Yale New Haven Hospital Auxiliary
To arrange a donation: (203) 688-5717
Drop-off location: Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital – 1 Park St, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

More Stories