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‘Part toy swap, part repair cafe’: From Chile to Cambridge, a heartwarming story

Starting a social venture is an act of bravery, even foolhardery. You need the heart of a lion and nerveless, endless patience and goodwill. And you have to be motivated, because the economic rewards don’t go to you, so there has to be an underlying goal other than making money.

Gobble the Goblin is a book written by Antoinette Nestor to enable children to understand the need to recycle
Gobble the Goblin is a book written by Antoinette Nestor to enable children to understand the need to recycle

This much I learned from being a trustee of a small healthcare charity for many years, but I learned a whole lot more about charitable activity by talking with Antonieta ‘Antoinette’ Nestor, a Chilean who set up A Toy’s Life And Beyond in 2018.

Dr Nestor comes from an authentic place, both in geographic terms and in terms of wanting to do something to make the world a better place for children. A love of people, a passion for justice and a desire to see positive change has taken her on a winding journey all over the world. Today she is the engagement manager for Cambridge Zero and the Centre for Climate Repair, as well as the founder of a unique social venture.

Her own childhood was relatively humble: growing up in Chile during the years of General Pinochet’s regime “was not easy”. She learned resilience and inventiveness.

“If you had no shoes, you made some out of cardboard and car tyres and off you went,” she says. A teacher told her to “never stop asking questions” and that “my circumstances did not define me”. She got a scholarship for an International Baccalaureate in Canada and went on to work “with seasonal workers at a coffee plantation in Costa Rica and indigenous people in Canada and Hawaii”.

On a visit back to Chile she met her future husband. “He was backpacking, he was from Ireland.” They moved to Galway. Her partner being a neuro-scientist, he got a job in Cambridge. Dr Nestor had studied for a PhD in law at the other Trinity College, in Dublin, but in Cambridge she took “an extended maternity break”. Nine months after her youngest son was born in 2017, Dr Nestor “started looking for work”.

Antoinette Nestor at Eddington. Picture: Keith Heppell
Antoinette Nestor at Eddington. Picture: Keith Heppell

Inspired by a Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in 2018, she started tidying up her home and “saw all these toys lying around” and realised they still could be used and put back into circulation, thereby saving materials for new toys and avoiding condemning old toys to the waste system.

“Everything combined into one,” she says. Factored into her thinking now is the transition towards a circular economy – one where nothing is wasted if at all possible.

“Moving towards a circular economy is to realise you have what you need. From plastic to paper, you make all these materials. If you keep on taking, at some point all this is all going to stop. With the circular economy, most of these toys are not recyclable – toys made from recycled materials are very expensive. But if you say ‘you can still play with toys when they’re broken’, there may be ways to repair or carry on using them.

“It’s a natural way of going. When a toy is broken you first teach the concept of repair, and if it can’t be repaired you ask: ‘Can you use it anyway?’ The third option is ‘can you recycle it?’, and with toys you can’t, so A Toy’s Life And Beyond is like a toy swap, plus a repair cafe. That’s what we’ve done at Eddington.”

A Toy’s Life And Beyond has a shop at Storey’s Field Centre in Eddington, and there’s been other public-facing events since, including at The Junction and The Grafton. There are activities at museums and with schools – educational, with practical guidance. And there’s children’s stories written by Antoinette, including Gobble the Goblin, which explain the need to recycle.

“We talk about the circular economy and what to do with plastic and it sits really well with smaller children, the classes between the ages of four and seven.”

Covid has temporarily slowed down the toy exchange programme, of course, though the principles are sound and will endure.

“The next step, as the rules relax, is to start collaborating with schools in Cambridge and then into different areas, helping communities build their own groups,” says Antoinette, whose children “love it, they’re really involved”.

A Repair Cafe at work in Kettle’s Yard – the model works just as well for toys! Picture: Keith Heppell
A Repair Cafe at work in Kettle’s Yard – the model works just as well for toys! Picture: Keith Heppell

A Toy’s Life And Beyond has an extensive advisory board and a very busy website which includes news, events listings, partnerships and resources. Dr Nestor is also “proud of working with Transition Cambridge, which brings people together to build stronger, more versatile communities”.

The organisation also needs storage space for all the toys that are being contributed – the point being, we can all do our bit in this race towards societal resilience and Antoinette Nestor, who emerged from the shadow of one of South America’s most despotic regimes with such positivity and creativity, has set a formidable pace.

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