After five years, the Toy Corner is full.
The shelves are packed with books, costumes and action figures, and Beanie Babies seem to spill out of every open space among treasures donated by Scott County residents to families in need.
Katie Vander Weit, who co-founded the nonprofit to be the county’s food shelf but for toys, said it’s a far cry from the group’s early days.
“Susie (Williams) and I would sit across from each other, and we would just stare at each other and be like, well, what do you think?” Vander Weit said, looking back on the small yellow table now surrounded by volunteers and covered with a sign-in computer and mountains of toys. “It was a lot quieter and a lot smaller.”
That was before hundreds of low-income families — parents looking for birthday gifts or Christmas presents — came to their store, taking its toys but refilling it with stories and gratitude.
“We’ve prayed, we’ve cried, we’ve hugged, we’ve laughed,” Williams said.
The Toy Corner since 2014 has let parents sign up for a time to “shop” through the collection of items, which are gathered from 12 donation boxes around the county.
Volunteers helps parents sort through the shelves of age-sorted items to pick out one new toy and two used toys per child along any free items they may want from a large table in the center.
Parents provide their name, their kids’ names and some proof of residence — like a utility bill — during their initial appointment. After that, all they need do is sign in for a slot during one of the even-numbered months the Toy Corner is open.
The program originally opened to families in the Prior Lake-Savage area but over the last few years has expanded to include anyone in Scott County.
The parents have become a sort of extended family for the women. They recognize their repeat clients on sight and often recall the names and ages of their children. Sometimes they even drive their clients, often women, home so they don’t have to try and navigate public transit with arms full.
There’s the woman recently came with news that her 12-year-old son was cancer-free, another who brings specially baked treats every visit, and another mother whose decision to leave an abusive relationship brought her to the Toy Corner with nothing the day of her daughter’s birthday.
Vander Weit said over the last five years they’ve provided toys for about 710 children. But she and Williams know they’re not meeting all of the need in the community.
Around 3,500 children — about 8.7% of all kids in the county — were living in homes that qualified for government assistance programs like food stamps or supplemental security income in the last year in Scott County, according to 2017 Census estimates.
“Our numbers has increased, but I think it’s because our awareness has increased,” Vander Weit said.
Toy Corner follows in the footsteps of another metro organization trying to bring some joy to low-income and impoverished children. William’s father, Barney Dolby, told Williams about two former high school classmates of his who launched a nonprofit in North St. Paul.
It was the Toy Shelf, open since 2005. Dolby’s former classmates invited Dolby, Williams and Vander Weit to tour the operation and donated the little red wagon that would become the Corner’s symbol.
“They were very kind and showed us a lot of ropes and did a lot of ground-breaking,” Dolby said. “As far as I know we’re the only two places like this in the state.”
Williams and Vander Weit said right now they have no plans to expand their operations. That would require a lot of fundraising and leaving behind their sweetheart rental deal — William’s husband who owns the building charges the nonprofit $1 a year in rent.
Instead, the women are trying to invite more clients and volunteers to the Toy Corner — the community giving that Williams says has restored her “faith in humanity.”
“If you need a pick-me-up, come to the Toy Corner,” Vander Weit said.