How two Belmore-Merrick teens transform shirts into toys for local animal shelters

Ryan Levinter, Charlie Matos start Tees to Toys


Local animal shelters can always use the public’s help — whether it’s through volunteering or donating supplies. Teens Ryan Levinter and Charlie Matos recognized that need, and the two dog lovers started Tees to Toys, an organization that transforms old T-shirts into rope toys, to be donated to local shelters.

“We saw there were a lot of lockdowns in the world in 2020 and 2021, and there still are,” Ryan said. “There were just all these animals going into the shelters when people started going back to work. (Shelters) weren’t able to give every single dog a toy, so we decided, why not try and do something?”

Last weekend, Ryan, 15 of Merrick, and Charlie, 14, of Bellmore, hosted their first workshop at the Merrick Library. Using space in the community room of the library, the workshop was open to fellow teens to volunteer for an hour to learn how to make the toys. In turn, they received credit for 1½ hours of community service.

A sheet handed out at the workshop detailed the process: After the shirt was cut into several long, thin sections, they were shaped into four braids. The braids were then weaved together using the box method, a type of knot most common in lanyards, to create a tight, compact rope toy. Depending on the size of the shirt and the thickness of the braids, there were toys of all different shapes and sizes, for all ages and breeds of dogs. 

Ryan’s mother, Dory Levinter, explained that her son had read a news article about shelters being crowded beyond their capacity. “During Covid, a lot of people got animals, but now that they’re back to their normal life, they can’t care for these dogs and are dumping them,” Dory said. “Since we cannot adopt hundreds of animals, Ryan thought the next best thing is to help the shelters as much as possible.”


Coordinating with Last Hope

The boys selected Last Hope Animal Rescue, in Wantagh, to be one of the first local shelters to work with because of its proximity to Bellmore and Merrick. Charlie said that his family has made donations to Last Hope over the years.

JoAnne Anderson, the shelter’s outreach coordinator, said that people returning dogs to shelters post-Covid wasn’t something that rescue workers had seen. “If they’re coming back, they’re coming back at the regular rate, but not because (of the pandemic),” Anderson said. “There was only one incident, in the whole time of the pandemic, where I could say it was directly related that we knew of.”

Anderson noted that Last Hope has maintained a high standard for animal adoptions since its inception to minimize returns of adoptees. “If you don’t lower your standards, the chances of this happening are less,” she said. “That’s one factor. Another is, we’re not puppy-based. We get puppies, but not often.

“When you have dogs that are a little bit older, you know a little bit more about what their temperament is like,” Anderson added. “If we’re getting them back, we’re getting them back for the same reasons, you know, like allergies, or it’s not a good fit, or it’s more responsibility than they thought.”

Adopting a pet from Last Hope involves getting a recommendation from a veterinarian, if those interested in adopting were previous pet owners. Anderson added that if it would be a family’s first pet, or if it had been years since they last owned one, not having a recommendation would not count against them.

Last Hope also takes other references into account, and conducts virtual home checks. Adopting a pet, Anderson stressed, is something people need to be absolutely sure of. “It has to be a lifetime commitment,” she said. “It has to be.”

Last Hope, she said, actually saw an increase in both dog and cat adoptions last year, and of course welcomes all donations — especially toys.


What’s next for Tees to Toys?

Tees to Toys is just getting started, but Ryan and Charlie have high hopes for the future. Though they are starting by donating to Last Hope, they hope to connect with other local rescues in the future.

Dory Levinter said that news about upcoming events and workshops would be put online, at Joining Tees to Toys’ mission, she said, is simple — there’s no cost and all that’s required is old shirts and safety scissors.

“As a parent, it’s for a good cause — all the dogs they’re going to be helping,” she said, “and they’re not on their phones for an hour. They have to be social, so it’s great.”

Tees to Toys will feature anyone who offers support to the cause, and has a pet at home, on its site, as a thank-you. Email to learn more, or to send a photo of your pet.