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He's A Santa Figure. A Man Who Bears Toys—And Some Joy.

He's A Santa Figure. A Man Who Bears Toys—And Some Joy.
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When Devendra Desai's van, painted with a big smiley-face in front, edges gingerly over the rubble at the Phoenix Mills construction site, children flock around it as if greeting an old friend. The van ISN't going to take them anywhere. Well, not literally, at least. But the toys crowded around the windows-black gorillas and pink lions, blue teddies and baby dolls-hold the promise of transporting them into a world they don't get to visit too often. A small girl claps excitedly as one of Desai's assistants clambers up on the roof of the van, and unloads a yellow tricycle and two rickety bikes. "Yeh kaun chalayega?" asks 54-year-old Desai, who seems as excited as the children. To screams of "Me! Me!" the bikes pass into eager hands. The small girl, too young for even a tricycle, gets a toy turtle.

"I'm proud that I can bring some joy to these children's lives," says Desai, founder and managing trustee of Children Toy Foundation (ctf). The foundation's mobile toy van brings cheer to more than 2,000 deprived children in 50 centres all over Mumbai, like the Sunbeam centre for construction workers' children at Phoenix Mills . Every 10 days, for three hours, the children get to play with nearly 300 toys, solve puzzles, read books, enjoy a puppet show or watch films on the van's in-built vcr. But Desai doesn't want to be slotted: "I want to serve all children, not just deprived ones," says the samaritan.

The toy van is his latest venture, a little over a year old. But since its inception in '82, the ctf has helped 195 institutes and individuals to set up toy libraries in 10 states and two union territories. These libraries are in schools, hospitals, old people's homes, Rotary Clubs, orphanages, jails and even organisations for special children. Here, children can borrow toys, free of charge or at a nominal cost. The foundation has also set up 10 play centres in Mumbai. Desai's involvement with social service goes back a long way. "I didn't have that inner satisfaction while working for others. I was only carrying out tasks allotted to me, with few creative inputs," he says. An avid chess-player since childhood, Desai found his creative outlet after a visit to the Chacha Nehru Library, India's oldest toy library. Starting out with just Rs 101, he set up his first library in '84; in '85 he registered his dream organisation.

Today, Desai holds a place in the Limca Book of Records for setting up toy libraries all over India. And an award from the International Toy Library Association and the International Association for the Right of the Child to Play-for coming up with the idea of an International Children's Olympics. But some libraries have closed down for lack of funds. And his single van also finds it difficult to cover the entire city of Mumbai regularly. Desai's Rs 2 lakh corpus fund is supported by a couple of corporate donors and his own family business. But the cost of operating the van itself works out to about Rs 15,000 per month. Then there are the expenses of buying new toys and hiring assistants to accompany the van and look after the play centres. To try and generate funds, Desai has started a 'A Rupee a Day' scheme: contribute Rs 365 a year to keep the mobile van running or sponsor a Play Day for a children's shelter. In '99, the van also made a trip to 62 villages around Latur, and with a corporate sponsor, Desai plans to make these trips a regular feature. Organisations can sponsor a toy library for Rs 10,000, or set up their own with Desai's help. Or sponsor origami classes, contests, even a children's Olympics in India.

"Playing ISN't a way of passing time. It's a way of learning to live"-having said that, Desai whips 10 magnetic counters out of his pockets, slaps them on the side of the bus and calls all the children to figure out his latest puzzle. His address: Devendra Desai, Ali Bldg, 72, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Fort, Mumbai-400023; phone: 022-2664831(O), 022-3856638(R), fax 022-2841247,

e-mail: ctf@vishwa.com or rdcoctf@im.eth.net

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