Venezuela's stuffed toy 'hospital' brings joy to children

A girl holds a stuffed animal at the Corazon de Maria primary school, Petare neighborhood, Caracas, on May 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Volunteers from 'El Hospital de Peluches' (Stuffed Toy Hospital) foundation organize repaired toys, on April 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (AFP) - Judith, a 90-year-old great-grandmother in Venezuela, examines a stuffed animal meticulously in her hands before finding a hole.

"This one needs surgery," she says, adding that "we're going to sew it up here".

Judith is one of 40 volunteers at what amounts to a hospital for stuffed toys. Since being founded in 2017, the hospital has delivered 30,000 recycled toys to schools and associations in poor neighbourhoods.

It operates out of the Caracas house of founder Lilian Gluck, 63, who receives hundreds of toys a week to repair.

The first task is to categorise: Barbie dolls, animals, Mickey Mouse, baby toys, among others.

"The stuffed toy hospital operates like a hospital, patients come in from the street," said Ms Gluck.

"These patients are sewn, washed, fixed, if they are missing eyes, we give them eyes, their hair is combed, they are given a beautiful ribbon and a card with a very nice message to take care of them and give them as gifts to other children when they grow up."

In one room, more than 300 stuffed toys are awaiting repairs.

In the workshop room, volunteers share out the tasks.

Some wash the toys and carefully sew them, while others paint damaged dolls.

There are also tailors creating little outfits, which is one of Judith's favourite tasks.

"I love to see them (the children) when we arrive and they know they are going to get a toy. You can't imagine their eyes. It's a real delight, and it's what is needed," she said.

Each stuffed animal gift is carefully packaged. Every detail counts, said Ms Gluck, who believes she is bringing dignity to vulnerable children by giving them toys in good condition.

In a country where 76 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty, according to the private Catholic University of Andres Bello, Ms Gluck believes what she is doing is equally as important as helping the poor.

"We support and accompany many people who bring food, but we cannot be so simplistic. In this country, people need to continue having fun," she said.

El Hospital de Peluches (Stuffed Toy Hospital) foundation members carrying boxes of stuffed animals to distribute to children. PHOTO: AFP

Paediatrician Maria Jose Rodriguez began volunteering with the association after patients in her clinic received donations.

"Obviously, you're not going to get a child out of malnutrition with a stuffed animal, but play is a basic need and children have the right to play," said the 47-year-old.

In a primary school in Petare, the largest slum in the country, 10-year-old Elias Barazarte has just received a stuffed toy with a bag, a box of crayons and some sweets.

"It doesn't matter that it's recycled as long as you can use and play with it," he said joyfully.

An accompanying card reads: "Hello, I'm your new toy. I'm an experienced toy because I've already played with another child. Love me and look after me and I will do the same with you, and when you're big, give me to another child who will love me like you do."

School director Mariligia Moreno believes that there is a sentimental and emotional element to giving toys to children from deprived backgrounds.

"Their parents are not around and a stuffed animal is not going to make up for it, but it is a way to help them express themselves, to take care of them (the toys), to give them the love that, perhaps at the moment, they have no one to give it to."

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