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Retirees craft hand-made toys for low-income kids

February 23, 2019
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Kids play with wooden toys at the Hocking - Athens - Perry Head Start, in Logan, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. The group of nine retired woodworkers get together once a week to make toys for Head Start programs all across the state. (Courtney Hergesheimer/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

LOGAN, Ohio (AP) — Bob Cole knew the answer before he asked, but he couldn’t resist creating a little suspense.

Leaning over to talk with a pony-tailed girl in her preschool classroom last week, Cole said, “We brought you some new toys; do you want to see them?”

Eyes wide, 4-year-old Charlie replied, “Show me!”

Cole, 75, and four other members of Craftsmen for Kids — a group of 16 retired men from central Ohio who formed a nonprofit organization to make and donate wooden educational toys — then began carrying in dozens of their latest creations.

Soon, 36 children from low-income families in the Head Start program in Logan were happily playing with wooden barns, trucks, blocks and doll beds, among other items.

Chris DeLamatre, director of the Hocking Athens Perry Community Action Program, which runs Head Start programs in those three counties, shook her head in wonder as she watched the men unload boxes from their gray pickup.

“It’s amazing that they got together and are doing this, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s such a community service.”

Scenes like that have played out often over the past three years throughout central and southern Ohio.

The men of Craftsmen for Kids make toys for Head Start programs in 15 counties, as well as for a program at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville and several battered women’s shelters.

They have rapidly expanded their efforts since their humble beginnings in 2010, when Cole, a Hebron resident, met Jim Thompson, 72, of Lancaster. Both were volunteering at the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio, which provides furniture to people in need.

“Like me, he was fairly new to woodworking,” said Cole, who took up the hobby after a career in law enforcement.

Thompson is a former teacher and administrator in the Bloom-Carroll and Pickerington school districts. He was making toys and donating them to a women’s shelter and Head Start classroom in Fairfield County.

Cole offered to help. By 2015, they saw the larger potential of their project and began recruiting other friends and acquaintances.

The group shares a passion for helping children who face poverty or other adversities.

“We want to help these kids with developmental skills because many of them are behind their peers who come from more affluent homes,” said member Don Davis, 73, of Pickerington. “For example, down in Ross County, teachers there told us they see children coming in at age 3 and 4 who don’t have good fine-motor skills, which they attribute to too much time with screens.”

So the men make toys that require kids to manipulate laces through holes. They also make many toys that emphasize learning numbers, colors and letters.

“It’s nice to have high-quality wooden toys, because at home, our kids see a lot of plastic toys or they’re on their tablets with screens,” said Gwynyth Chmara-Huff, a teacher in the Newark Head Start program. “These are toys that don’t come with a set expectation, so it’s more open-ended play. The kids interact with them, and it sparks their imagination.”

As more people became involved, Craftsmen for Kids split into two working groups: one that meets Mondays at Cole’s shop and one that gathers Tuesdays at Ralph Devine’s shop, also in Hebron.

The members use donated money to purchase wood, and pay out of their own pockets for incidentals such as tools or the cost of transportation.

Early this year, Cole finished building a new, 1,152-square-foot shop that is equipped with heat and air conditioning, a ventilation system and nearly a dozen pieces of equipment: saws, routers and sanders.

On a recent Monday, the shop hummed and buzzed with activity. Stacks of wood and toys in various stages of construction filled plastic bins and sat on shelves. It resembled Santa’s workshop staffed with elderly elves, with ages ranging from 62 to 84.

Dan Johnson, an Amanda resident, said, “I love this opportunity that I get every week. I enjoy the relationships with these guys and also touching kids’ lives.”

They get plenty of positive feedback from those they serve, such as Melissa Shaw of the LEADS Community Action Agency. She oversees Head Start programs in Delaware, Licking and Union counties.

“They are pouring so much of their heart and soul into this and leaving such a legacy to the children,” she said.

The feedback the men enjoy most, though, is when they deliver the toys. As the kids in Logan played with the Craftsmen for Kids’ creations last week, the men stood off to the side, watching and smiling.

“You really receive more than you give,” Thompson said. “It’s a feeling you can’t duplicate, the feeling of helping people out and helping children.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2NgI0jm

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com