LARAMIE — So many good things rose from the devastation of the COVID pandemic: fiscal resilience, societal reflection and several new businesses, including the used-toys lending service The Nest Toy Library.
The Nest, founded and directed by Rhianna Handschu, launched in late October and has since gained popularity among parents with young children. Currently, she has about seven members and 375 toys available for check-out.
Although a few of the toys were purchased out of pocket, the majority were donated by families whose children outgrew them.
The pandemic, Handschu said, spurred the idea of offering a toy service for families who had to stay indoors with young children during the lockdown.
But her idea to operate a toy library — a well-known concept in other countries like the United Kingdom and Australia — is multifaceted and conceptualized long before the pandemic spread in Laramie.
Handschu was an early education teacher at the Early Care and Education Center located on N. 30th St. near Ivinson Memorial Hospital. During her seven years teaching young children, and after having her own children, she found that many parents struggle with engaging their children in a way that promotes healthy development.
“One part of parenting that’s overlooked — even for me — is it can be really hard to engage with your kids in play … and know the right questions to ask,” Handschu said while sitting on her garage floor in front of inventory. “You get all these toys but don’t understand what it is (your) kid is getting out of (it),” she added.
Because of this, Handschu decided to include a “Ways to Play” card in every toy package.
Included on the card are suggestions and instructions for parents on how best to engage their child with the toys and intention. Handschu refers to the cards as a hint in the right direction to ensure children get the most out of their playtime. She also emphasized the importance of parent/child interaction during play.
“The bottom line (and) the most important thing is that you just sit down and play with your kids and be present,” she said.
In addition to providing parents and children plausible methods for intentional play, Handschu saw a social need for parents, especially stay-at-home moms.
“It’s so lacking in today’s society,” she said, adding the expectations mothers of young children face are difficult to handle and inhibit the necessary social connections that support healthy interactions with children.
“Moms need community … to talk about the good and the bad and ask advice,” Handschu said.
She also mentioned there are several options for older children to play and learn, such as the Leap Ninja Warrior Fitness center on Grand Avenue and several parks. But there aren’t as many options for families with small children.
This need for social connectivity and intentional, economical play motivated Handschu to move forward with her toy library idea and seek advice and partnership with the Wyoming Women’s Business Center (WWBC).
“Rhianna had a clear vision of how she wanted to implement her business,” said Jessica Brauer, marketing director and business counselor at the WWBC, “She was very clear on what her goals were.”
Brauer said Handschu’s vision and drive made it easy to extend the resources needed to legitimize her business platform and launch.
Despite the growing uncertainty among other small businesses during the peak of coronavirus, the COVID-19 support program through the WWBC provided countless entrepreneurs the required resources to conduct business with confidence.
“For some people, that meant getting them a website … or getting set up on social media or feeling more comfortable about making digital outreach efforts,” Brauer said.
For The Nest, WWBC connected Handschu with a professional web designer who helped build a user-friendly and attractive web platform. She also worked with a professional photographer to ensure her site looked clean, colorful and professional.
In addition to extensive Zoom meetings, phone calls and emails to get the lending toy library site operational, Handschu worked closely with Brauer on marketing strategies and implementation.
“We were able to bounce some ideas off of each other and get her feeling confident about launching this business in a really awkward time,” Brauer said.
Handschu praised and thanked the WWBC for their expertise and partnership, stating there was no possible way to launch her business without the help of the business center.
“I was so naïve to what it was really going to be like … (WWBC) made us a legitimate business,” she said.
Some of the obvious challenges Handschu faced were creating a functional website while balancing raising two children under the age of five.
“There are times when I (think) ‘I’m crazy for wanting to launch a business and take care of two kids,’” she said.
But the biggest challenge, she noted, was gaining a prospective audience during a lockdown. The only feasible way she could spread the word about her business was through social media because coffee shops and other establishments with heavy foot traffic were closed to “see a flyer.”
Brauer provided counseling on this front and ultimately helped Handschu get the word out through word of mouth.
“Rhianna is a perfect example of how small businesses can really thrive in our small, rural Wyoming communities,” Brauer said, “(and) I really hate to refer to these silver linings in a global pandemic … however, the ability to spread the word and get resources to the hands of our Wyoming communities and these female entrepreneurs who are doing really incredible things feels like a well-earned gift in a really ugly time.”
Handschu said most toy lending libraries launch with a physical location already established.
Although The Nest Toy Library is completely online, Handschu ultimately hopes to expand her services to a physical location in Laramie.
“I want something that represents a space other families can grow together,” she said, adding The Nest name was chosen to embody a philosophy of growth, family and connectivity.
“I hope The Nest will be one day a place where people can come … I feel it in my bones and I so badly want this to work,” Handschu said.
The Nest and Handschu will always be considered a client of the WWBC and therefore will always be available to assist Handschu conduct business, Brauer said.
“We will continue to offer support for all of our clients and anybody who wants to be a client,” Brauer said, “Ultimately, we are here to support (Rhianna) however we can moving forward.”