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For 15-Year-Old, Mending Hearts Is All That Matters

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.


For two straight Saturdays, the 9-year-old boy asked to borrow some toy wrestling figures.

And both times, Florencio Orozco Jr. said he didn't have any to lend.

But after seeing the boy sadly watching other kids play, Florencio, 15, decided he had to do something.

So he spent $12--money his mother had given him to get something for himself--to buy the youngster two plastic wrestlers.

"He was real happy," Florencio says. "He told me thanks and he told the other workers here thanks too. And he started playing with kids who had their own toys."

Another heart mended by the "toyrarian" of Mar Vista Gardens.


For three years, Florencio has run the toy loan service at the Culver City housing project. He is the youngest manager among the 33 county-sponsored centers from which children borrow puzzles, games and other donated playthings.

Working with minimal adult supervision, Florencio opens the doors at 11:30 a.m. each Saturday. He loans the toys from a small, graffiti-covered shed behind a row of apartments. The structure originally housed pumps to return overflow to adjacent Ballona Creek.

Inside is a rough cinder-block room, lighted by bare bulbs across the ceiling. But Florencio has made it a happy place, taping bright posters of Prince, Rambo and wrestler Andre the Giant to the walls and creating large displays of the Ninja turtles and GI Joe.

The 3,000 toys grouped on the shelves include balls, games, puzzles, dolls, trucks and skate boards--something for anyone ages 7 months to 15 years.

As the waiting line outside expands to six or more, he allows two kids to enter at a time.

First, Florencio checks in toys that children borrowed the previous week, making sure that games still work and contain all necessary parts. He lends playthings for the next week, recommending toys appropriate for specific ages. He enters all exchanges on a computer filing system he's developed. Then he hands each child a snack.

Four hours and 70 children later, he closes the doors.

Florencio also devotes two hours each weekday to building displays, decorating and cleaning the center. Since he first volunteered to help at age 10, he has put in 5,000 hours. For his dedication, Florencio recently was named youth volunteer of the year among about 10,000 county helpers 22 and younger.

Florencio says his time is well spent. "When the children say thanks for opening the lending service, it's like they would be doing something else and getting in trouble if the Toy Loan wasn't here. That makes me feel good.

"I don't want them to go to waste--to join gangs or to do drugs. I want them to be somebody."


Friends don't know why the slight, soft-spoken teen-ager dedicated himself to young people. They say only that his normal shyness disappears around children.

"Some older kids see little ones and shine them on, but Florencio will take time to talk to them. He's not embarrassed by that," says Monica Pooni, 31, a volunteer in the toy loan project and a former Mar Vista Gardens resident.

Florencio, who begins his sophomore year at University High today, lives in the complex with his mother, Teresa, a factory worker, and brother, Miguel, 11.

"He'll see a kid sitting on the porch and ask what he's doing," Pooni says. "The kid will say, 'Nothing, I'm just sitting here.' And he'll ask what's wrong."

The discussion may veer toward relationships, homework or a complicated Nintendo game. But Florencio also alerts children when they're nearing trouble.

"He'll see them doing something wrong and tell them to get away from there and why they shouldn't be doing it," Pooni says.

The contact with children relaxes Florencio. "I see him outside tickling or wrestling with the kids, and he's hollering like the rest of them," Pooni says.

The work can be frustrating, especially after a burglary, says Florencio's brother, Miguel. Losses during five years include a computer, CD player, typewriter and a display of Florencio's own GI Joe figures.

"We work hard to get things for the kids," Florencio says. "It's unfair."

Most of his fellow teens seem to respect Florencio's efforts to help children, says Frank Elias, 26, who was the Mar Vista Toy Loan's previous manager.

"Friends will come by the center and some will say, 'You're wasting your time. Nobody cares. How can you make a difference?' But mostly the response is positive," says Elias, a former Mar Vista Gardens resident living in Baldwin Park.

The real pressure on Florencio is to do things with friends on Saturdays, Elias says. "Friends will say, 'Let's go to the beach' or 'Let's go ride bikes.' I've seen him turn away opportunities to go to Magic Mountain in order to open the center."

So far, the pressure isn't affecting Florencio, and he plans to stay. He could put more effort into drawing or playing football, which he also enjoys, but working in those areas wouldn't allow him to help children as much.

"This helps a lot of kids who don't have many toys at their house," he says. "People are saying the African-American people are getting educated and going up (in the world). That's how I want Hispanics to be."

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