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State pulls Toy Shop out of yule giveaway

Children and Families objects to the shop's giving away used toys and looks elsewhere.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Christmas Toy Shop, which has provided holiday cheer to needy children for 80 years, is facing an uncertain future because its partnership with a state agency appears about to dissolve.

The Department of Children and Families notified shop organizers last week that it will use another organization for its annual holiday project.

It means the Toy Shop will no longer receive from the state some elements critical to the shop's annual giveaway: a list of needy families and mailing labels so that families can be notified about toy distribution dates, for example.

The change leaves Toy Shop organizers, who all are volunteers, wondering how they will give away the goodies this year. Last year, more than 3,000 children up to 12 years old got toys, the shop's records show.

"Our people are in a state of shock," said Toy Shop manager Ardith Rutland.

DCF officials decided to make the change because some gift recipients reported the toys they received were dirty or broken, spokeswoman Shawnna Lee said.

"We were afraid our clients were not being served. We decided this year to withdraw the relationship," Lee said.

She said the agency will primarily work with Toys for Tots from now on.

A letter DCF wrote to the Toy Shop also cited an objection to used toys being given to youngsters.

The letter, signed by DFC regional community resource manager Christel Vinson, said the Toy Shop is "the only location throughout our six-county region that distributes used toys to the children we refer."

Vinson is on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment.

Lee said the DCF received 45 complaints about unacceptable toys, most coming through a customer service survey the agency conducted.

The switch caught the Christmas Toy Shop by surprise, Rutland said.

"If there had been complaints, they should have talked to us," she said.

Rutland said she was aware of a damaged bicycle that had been returned after last year's gift distribution. It had slit tires and no brakes or reflectors, Rutland said.

"I know it didn't go out that way from us," she said. "I know how (toys) go out. I know they're not dirty or broken," she said.

Lee said she believes the shop had been contacted about complaints. "We don't arbitrarily make decisions without trying to remedy the situation," she said.

She also said DCF clients can continue to get gifts from the Toy Shop. "We are just not going to provide (the shop with) a list of clients this year," she said, because to do so would constitute a "passive endorsement" the agency does not wish to bestow.

The Toy Shop, which began in 1921 working in partnership with Pinellas County health officials, operates two centers, one on 16th Street N, the other on 16th Street S.

Toys, both old and new, are donated by a variety of sources: individuals, companies, and public agencies such as police and fire departments, for example. The items are cleaned up and repaired as needed, Rutland said. About 70 people, many of whom are retired, compose the shop's volunteer list and work year-round.

Financial contributions come from businesses and individuals, and each year a community group called the Christmas Belles conducts a holiday fundraiser. During the 2000-2001 fiscal year, the Toy Shop received some funding from the Pinellas County and St. Petersburg city governments.

Children get both old and new toys, Rutland said.

Each child gets a new toy, a new stuffed animal and a new book, in addition to some used toys, she said. Last December, 645 bicycles were given away, each with a new helmet.

Rutland said volunteers are organizing a campaign to protest the DCF decision, which they hope to have reversed.

They plan to write letters to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, and county and state officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush.

Whatever happens, the Toy Shop will continue operating, she said.

"We're not giving it up, period," Rutland said. "We're not closing up because of (the DCF)."

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