- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

At Children’s National Medical Center in the District, there is a supply closet as crucial,

in some ways, as the ones that hold bandages and syringes.

Dr. Bear’s Closet holds stacks of dolls and board games, crayons and coloring books. There are buckets of playing cards and bins of bubble wands. There are dolls, craft sets and, of course, the coveted video-game systems.

June is low season for the toy closet. Around holiday time, the place will be overflowing.

Children’s serves about 100,000 patients a year, both in the hospital and at its outpatient centers. That is a lot of children who still want to play, no matter what their health or physical limitations, says Terry Orzechowski, director of support and volunteer services.

“We know children need to be children in order to heal,” Ms. Orzechowski says. “We have children dealing with challenging issues. It makes sense to be able to play.”

Dr. Bear’s Closet is used in a variety of ways at the hospital. It helps stock the many patient playrooms. Staffers and volunteers bring toys to children who have a special request or just want a change of plaything. If a patient has a birthday or is just having a rough day, something from the toy closet can make things seem better.

Chris Bragg, a child life specialist at Children’s, says seeing familiar favorites at the hospital can really help a child cope.

“If they see Candyland, for instance, that gives them something to focus on,” she says. “Everything else is very foreign - you have doctors, pain, strangers. Toys are something normal, something they have seen before.”

Ms. Bragg says the incentive of choosing an item from the toy closet often helps children meet a challenge, such as taking their medicine or reaching a goal in physical therapy.

She hands out “Bear Bucks,” - play money in various values - as an ongoing incentive, then wheels a cart with toy selections of different “prices” to the patient for a little retail therapy.

Ms. Orzechowski says about $250,000 in toys and monetary donations have come through the toy closet in the past three years. Donations come from individuals as well as corporate toy drives and school groups. Many donors like the idea of a tangible donation - they know a sick child will benefit directly from a deck of cards or a book, Ms. Orzechowski says.

“When people understand how much of a difference they can make, we see a lot of generosity,” she says. “We’re very, very lucky. We have some very nice donors for whom this is their passion.”

Nonetheless, by late May, the shelves of the toy closet were bare, Ms. Orzechowski says. A staffer took some of the monetary donations and went to several stores to stock up. She says she hopes summer donations will be steady to maintain the supply.

Donations roll in from September to December, and many of the hospital’s 400 volunteers take a turn at unloading trucks.

Potential donors to Dr. Bear’s Toy Closet should remember that all toys must be new because of the hospital’s infection-control requirements, Ms. Orzechowski says. The closet can use toys for all age levels, from infant to adolescent. Board games are popular, as are board books, musical books, Play-doh, art and crafts sets, word-find books, and model kits. “Dream gifts” for the closet include digital cameras, video-game systems, DVD players, sewing machines and iPods.

Still, the most popular item is a basic one.

“Uno,” Ms. Orzechowski says, referring to the inexpensive card game. “Hands down, it is the No. 1, across-the-board favorite.”

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