Jane Donelson dies at 88; ran L.A. County toy-lending program for decades

Jane Donelson, who ran a trailblazing program from the 1960s through the early 1990s that lends toys to thousands of children in Los Angeles County, has died. She was 88.

Donelson, a longtime resident of Rancho Palos Verdes, died Oct. 8 of natural causes at a Tustin care facility, said her daughter, Jan Arnold.

The toy program was established in 1935 after the manager of a Los Angeles dime store caught children stealing spools of thread to make wheels for toy cars, Donelson told the Associated Press in 1985.

Realizing that the children didn't have money for toys during the Depression, the manager and community opened a pioneering toy-loan center, said Judith Iacuzzi, executive director of the USA Toy Library Assn.

Los Angeles County's network of toy libraries has grown to more than 50 branches largely because of the efforts of Donelson, said Marcia Benitez, director of the program run by the county Department of Public Social Services.

After Donelson took over the program in 1962, "she catapulted it to the next level in terms of serving more children," Benitez said. "She was just passionate about making sure that no child would be without toys in Los Angeles County."

About 30,000 children a year take advantage of its services, according to the program's website.

To Donelson, the toys were just the half of it. Caring for a borrowed plaything helped build character, she said more than once.

If toys were returned damaged, "they have to tell us what happened," Donelson told the Christian Science Monitor in 1998. "When they first come in, it's always their cousin or their brother did it.... But when we remind them that it is their responsibility, you'd be surprised at how that soaks in."

With Donelson's help, the concept spread to hundreds of cities throughout the country and overseas, according to the Illinois-based USA Toy Library Assn.

The organization honors excellence in the field with its Jane Donelson Player of the Year Award.

Jane Moe and her twin brother, George, were born Dec. 1, 1921, in Los Angeles to George and Mabel Moe. Her father, a traveling salesman for Bostitch, died when she was 17.

After Jane married her high school sweetheart, Keith Donelson, in 1941, the couple moved around the country for his job as a Douglas Aircraft engineer.

"She was the biggest go-getter people person you ever met," her daughter said, calling her an "eternal optimist" and natural leader who returned to the Los Angeles area to serve as president of Diana's Junior Women's Club of Redondo Beach.

After the women's club organized a toy-lending center there, Donelson volunteered to run it and found her calling, her daughter said.

Soon Donelson was taking over the reins of the organization, and she effectively remained the head "toyrarian" — the term for volunteers who run the individual toy libraries — for more than 30 years.

One story she often told was about a boy who teared up when Donelson revoked his borrowing privileges for continually returning toys to the Redondo Beach center broken.

"Two weeks later, he returned and said, 'I've grown up now and I'm ready to take care of the toys,'" her daughter said. "This time, the tears were in her eyes."

Donelson's husband died in 2002.

In addition to her daughter, Jan, of Tustin, she is survived by her son, Jim, of Palos Verdes Estates; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.