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Library Offers Toys--and Responsibility : Students can borrow any of 500 playthings at new facility. If they are returned on time and in good shape, pupils will earn points to select items to keep.

March 06, 1994|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Starting Tuesday, elementary children at Utah Street School in Boyle Heights will be able to borrow everything from Barbie dolls to soccer balls to the newly popular Mighty Morphin Power Rangers at the school's new toy library.

Mitsui Fudosan (U.S.A.), a Japanese real estate development firm with offices in Downtown Los Angeles, is sponsoring the project and has converted a classroom into a library with custom shelves, new carpeting and 500 to 600 toys. Utah Street School is the first campus in the Los Angeles Unified School District to have a privately sponsored toy library.

Although students on Friday had an opportunity to tour the freshly painted library after an opening ceremony, it will be open for browsing and borrowing only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during its first three months, after which the company will decide whether it will remain a twice-weekly operation.

"The children's eyes are going to fall out when they see this," Principal Dee Dee Mynatt said as she showed off the well-stocked library before the tour last week.

The library will lend videos, puzzles, sports equipment, dolls and board games. Students will be allowed to check out one toy per week. Those who return toys on time and in good condition will earn points.

After earning a predetermined number of points, students will be allowed to select a toy to keep from the Awards Cabinet. The toys will get progressively bigger and better as the children continue to earn and redeem points.

"The only way kids are going to learn about responsibility is to have a chance to do it," Mynatt said.

Almost all of the 900 students attending Utah Street School are residents of the Aliso Village Housing Project, one of the largest public housing projects in Los Angeles. The school's population is roughly 95% Latino, 3% African American and 2% Asian.

"I think it's a good idea, because a lot of kids live in the projects and don't have toys to play with," said Rosalia Meraz, a sixth-grader who lives in Aliso Village. "I think it'll be good especially for the little ones who don't have anything to do after school."

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In addition to $20,000 in start-up costs, Mitsui Fudosan expects to spend $5,000 a year to maintain and replenish the library's supply of toys. The company also will pay for a teacher's assistant to serve as a toy librarian twice a week.

"I applaud the generosity of Mitsui," said City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who attended the library's opening ceremony. "If you look at the economic conditions of the L.A. Unified School District and the state in general, it's obvious that there isn't enough funding for needed programs. The idea of public-private partnerships is essential."

Mitsui Chairman Shuhei Okuda is now a board member of several community groups, including the United Way, the Japanese American National Museum and the Japan America Society. But last year, to celebrate Mitsui's 20th anniversary in California, Okuda decided that the company should develop its own community project.

After employees discussed various ideas, Yuriko Bonds, the company's vice president of administration, came up with the toy library concept.

"I was looking for something we could do," Bonds said. "So I visited two schools and I noticed that they had a tiny bit of toys in their libraries. I thought maybe we could do the toy library because there are so many academic things and not enough things for pleasure."

Before selecting a site for the library, Bonds visited Utah Street and Ann Street School near Chinatown. The day Bonds went to Utah Street, a shooting occurred near the school.

"I was a little shocked," Bonds said. "But it made me make a firm decision on the school. I felt they would need it because the school is the safest place for children to be. This way, maybe children can stay after school and play with the toys instead of being out on the streets."

Okuda said he hopes to expand the program throughout the Los Angeles school district.

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"I don't want the toy library to be just Mitsui's project," he said. "I'm going to ask other Japanese companies to participate and start their own libraries."

Although Mitsui Fudosan is the first company in Los Angeles to sponsor a toy library, the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services runs a toy-lending program at 30 centers, including two public schools.

The county program began in 1934, when a store manager caught some children stealing thread spools to make wheels for toy cars, county officials said. He went to a community volunteer group and suggested that there be places where toys are available for children to borrow. The group established the first toy-lending center at the Manchester playground a year later.

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