Toys by tots reveal humanity in impoverished countries

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"Not Sold in Stores," an exhibition of toys made by children in impoverished countries, may be one of the humblest exhibits in recent memory, but it touches on two of the most important themes of a civilization - the role of creativity in the development of a people and the true definition of wealth and poverty.

The collection is on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, a museum that focuses on racism and prejudice in America and the history of the Holocaust.

Director Liebe Geft says she took her own children through the exhibition, and they offered a lesson for developed nations: " 'We're the poor ones,' my children said to me," she says, "because we don't use what we have."

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The show of some 300 objects, ranging from soccer balls made of compressed plastic bags wrapped in twine to racing cars fashioned from old soda bottles, is rooted in a trip taken in May 2000 by the president of the Christian Children's Fund. Dr. John Schultz was visiting a famine-struck area of Kenya when he encountered a 9-year-old boy sailing a small, rickety toy boat on a lake.

The sailboat was made from a discarded rubber flip-flop sandal, a plastic bag for a sail, and two sticks. "Of all these toys," Mr. Schultz says, "the sailboat is perhaps closest to my heart because it was so personal."

In that boat, Schultz saw a message of hope and affirmation that he wanted to bring back to the United States. His organization has been involved with humanitarian efforts in war-torn and disease-ravaged areas for more than 30 years, and he says it is always looking for ways to show the humanity in countries in which it works.

"We hope people can see these toys as a way that children overcome obstacles, and in many of these countries the obstacles are very real," Schultz says.

He points out that creativity is key to a child's ability to thrive in the midst of desperate circumstances.

"We find that creativity is one of the first things children reach for after we've delivered the basics of survival, such as food and water. This is their way of normalizing life. These toys are the life substance, the real work of children."

The objects reveal much about the life of their creators, director Ms. Geft says. A car created from a plastic soda bottle and four rubber circles cut from flip-flop sandals (flip-flops and plastic bags are two of the most commonly scavenged items used by children in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, she says), was made right after a militia raid in East Timor.

The children scavenged in the garbage dumps to retrieve items left behind by the soldiers. "The ability to be creative often plays an important role in healing a damaged community," Geft says.

The museum has made a strong effort to attract local schoolchildren. Geft says many of the younger students ask why these children don't just go to the store and buy a toy.

"We, as a developed nation, have many expectations," Geft says. "Other children from less fortunate situations don't take these things for granted." Perhaps, she suggests, pointing to the joyful children whose creations are on display, all the abundance of a wealthy nation isn't what we need to be happy, after all.

Versions of the show will travel to Dallas, June 1-Aug. 30, and Portsmouth, Va., May 1-Aug. 30. The organizers hope for further exhibitions in New York, Chicago, and Washington.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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