It can be a life-changing moment seeing a suffering child crack a smile for the first time in many months. Or to hear a little girl battling illness utter words, after days of silence, at the sight of a new, yet simple wooden toy. The volunteer group of retirees known as The ToyMakers crave the sight of such tiny outbursts of joy from children enduring the most difficult of times. So without fail, The ToyMakers carve, sand and whittle away at wood in a small storage unit off State Road 52 and Little Road, turning out colorful toys on wheels destined for the hands of sick and needy children.
Their motto is simple:
"We work with wood, and we like to see kids smile," said ToyMaker Bill Coccia.
The labor of dozens of ToyMakers in the shop, as well as garages and homes across Pasco, produces thousands of toys each year that are delivered to children's hospitals, domestic violence shelters, fire departments, police stations and schools across the Tampa Bay area.
There are wooden ducks, alligators, frogs, cars, tugboats. Most of the toys are on wheels, and they are entirely made of wood, so there are no safety concerns. So far this year the group has delivered 12,000 toys to kids, including a recent Christmas delivery of 2,500.
As Christmas approaches, the hustle and bustle of the small toymaking shop looks a bit like Santa's workshop — if the elves were a little grayer on top.
"We're all retired, you know we have lived hectic lives like everyone does," said ToyMaker Hugo Helmer. "But there is nothing hectic about this and what we do for the kids."
The memories spill out of the shop like the boxes of handmade toys, as part of the joy of the work is to make the deliveries and see the kids' faces, ToyMaker Tom Loughlin said.
Loughlin once encountered a woman weeping as she walked out of a children's hospital with two kids, and he stopped them. He leaned down and offered the children a couple of toys. They both lit up and took one each. The mother stopped crying after seeing the smiles on her children's faces.
Another time Loughlin gave a sick little girl a toy frog attached to a string to be pulled across the floor, and she took off to play with it. He later asked the child if she had named her frog.
"No," the girl said.
"How about Kermit?"
"That's good," she said smiling.
An astounded nurse in the facility where the girl spent her days looked on with amazement.
"She said, 'That's the first time she has spoken since she got here,' " Loughlin said. "I had a nurse tell me, 'You have no idea how many smiles are in those boxes of toys you bring.' "
The ToyMakers are from all walks of life, made up of retired engineers, manufacturers, military servicemen and even a nuclear physicist. Many are snowbirds who continue to work when they leave for the summer. When Helmer returned from Massachusetts this year, he brought back 3,000 toys he made up north.
For The ToyMakers, the job is year round, but Christmas is a special time of year for helping children and families in need. And the joy they bring can create a long-lasting memory for a child in a hospital, or a young person driven out of their home by domestic violence.
The ToyMakers' eldest member, 91-year-old Bob Jahrling, knows that only too well. He has been making toys for the group since 1982.
"I went to my barber the other day and a woman told me her son had to go to the hospital as a child and got one of our toys. She said it's still on his mantel 20 years later," Jahrling said.