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Toymakers of East Lake crafting children's smiles

Bob Millan of Palm Harbor paints helicopters recently while working with the nonprofit Toymakers of East Lake.
Bob Millan of Palm Harbor paints helicopters recently while working with the nonprofit Toymakers of East Lake.
Published Mar. 18, 2014


In a small building tucked behind East Lake United Methodist Church, saws and planers hum and a large dust collector roars. This spacious workshop is a beehive of activity. Here, almost every morning until noon, the Toymakers of East Lake work their magic, creating sturdy wooden toys for children in distress. Tables and shelves are laden with the fruits of their labor.

Small white police cars with tiny decals replicating official police symbols, small blue helicopters, white ambulances bearing red crosses, and colorfully painted trucks, puzzles and hand-held toys for toddlers are heaped on tables. Shelves hold rows of black batmobiles. All are ready for delivery to children being taken to hospitals or shelters, or being removed from abusive or hostile homes.

"We make thousands of these," said club president Bob Helms of the batmobiles. "They are really popular with kids."

The nonprofit group makes thousands of wooden toys a year, many of which go to police or fire departments, local hospitals, shelters and other agencies helping children in need.

Many of the club's 100 volunteers, about 30 to 40 of whom show up on any given morning, appear like-minded in the joy of making these gifts for children under duress. They also enjoy the camaraderie of getting together to do this work.

"You can't stop seniors from working," said Helms, 67, who joined the Toymakers in 2009, two years after the group formed. "Providing a meaningful opportunity for volunteers to get together is almost as important as what they do for the children."

Many of the woodworkers bring prior experience to their task. As a youngster, Helms received a tool box from his father and helped his father and uncle build a sandbox and a basketball backboard.

John Little, 72, of East Lake is one of three members who first joined the original Toymakers in New Port Richey in 2006. He had long admired the work of his late father, a cabinet maker.

"I inherited all his tools and really got into it myself after he died," Little said.

Kurt Leichssenring, 77, of Tarpon Springs said he sees the work as a continuation of a hobby.

"Many of us have made toys at home," he said. "I've always liked doing woodwork with my four children."

The Toymakers need more than talent to make their mission a success, though. They need help from the community.

"We consider ourselves an outreach ministry of the church," said Helms. "We are 100 percent volunteers who live strictly on donations."

The church has donated the use of the building space. All the original tools were donated, although Helms said the group would like to update many of them.

Wood is the most immediate need; the two suppliers have gone out of business. The club uses about 4,000 feet of board a year.

"Right now we are looking for a source of cut-off wood or 3/4-inch boards," said Helms, whose volunteers work with poplar, cherry, walnut and maple.

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"We mostly use poplar," he said, "because it is a hard, stable wood that doesn't splinter or crack."

The Toymakers of East Lake also provide bicycles for needy children and adults. People donate bikes in varying conditions and club members harvest workable parts, reusing them on the most viable bikes. But they need more bikes to meet the demand.

"It takes about 1,000 bicycles to harvest 370 usable ones," Helms said.

The majority of workers are retirees ranging in age from 54 to 95, but young people also are involved in the toy making and the bike refurbishing. They are mostly students in the Bright Futures scholarship program who plan to attend a state university. The students, Helms said, usually come on Saturday and accumulate hours for their community service requirement.

"Some of them really get into the work," he said of the teenagers. "Now we have a different student sit on the board each year."

The group has some female members too. They often do the painting and decorating of the crafted toys.

"The shop environment is important to men," said Helms, "but many women enjoy painting together in small groups at home."

At least one woman is an exception to the work-at-home group. Helms' wife, Janet, 54, is the club vice president and active at the workshop. She handles the inventory and oversees deliveries. She also can use every tool in the shop.

"I learned from Bob," she said of her husband, who involved her in making decorative objects for the couple's home in Tarpon Springs.

She feels like most of the others busily turning wood into gifts for kids.

"Rewarding is the key word for what we do," she said. "I have had the gratification of seeing children's faces light up when they receive these toys."

Elaine Markowitz may be reached at


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