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Service through toys: Toy Shoppe marks 25 years of providing gifts to local children

Times Observer photos by Josh Cotton Volunteers at the Toy Shoppe, including woodworkers and painters, make hundreds of different wooden toys each year that are made for children all over the county. They’re celebrating 25 years of toy making this year.

An idea to provide activity and socialization for retired people in Warren County has grown to bless thousands of children in the area over the last 25 years.

The Toy Shoppe is celebrating its silver anniversary this year.

If you’re not familiar, the Toy Shoppe is located at the Warren State Hospital. Volunteers gather three days a week to make wooden toys that are then distributed — via a host of means — to children throughout the area.

Volunteer coordinator Pat Williams said the Toy Shoppe was formed in 1998 by a group who had a vision that recognized the “therapeutic values of being active senior citizens.” And the vision was to couple that work with serving disadvantaged children in the county.

The first year of production was 1999 and 1,000 toys were made.

Twenty-five years later? The organization has about 50 active volunteers, has made 30,000 toys including 1,835 last year and a distribution network that includes the Salvation Army, Toys For Tots and a host of other agencies.

One example? Toy Shoppe volunteers recently took toys to all WCSD kindergarten classes to help with indoor recess. The estimated value of that work alone is about $9,000.

And Williams said they’re hoping to expand that partnership to first grade and potentially special education.

“The toys we produce are multi-faceted,” Williams said. “We do a lot of doll toys, tables and chairs for Barbie and Ken, beds for all ranges of doll sizes.

“We do puzzles and games. We’ll do tic-tac-toe. Then we do all kinds of toys they can move with.”

That includes shopping carts with wooden fruits and vegetables, toy gas ranges and chainsaws.

“The kids have a great time with these toys,” he said.

Toy Shoppe volunteers have also made toys and kits for Free Books for Kids Town, Warren County Fright Nights and Angel Tree programs.

“We’re constantly adding to provide different areas where toys can be distributed,” Williams said.

The Toy Shoppe program is funded through grants and donations for the cost of the wood as well as the maintenance required to keep the tools and machines going. They’re part of Warren Gives.

“It’s a very expensive operation,” Williams said.

They’ve boiled down their cost to about $3.25 per toy. Multiply that by the number of toys and the amount grows quickly.

“We really depend on the generosity of the community,” Williams said, specifically highlighting grants from Cummins and the Warren State Hospital for providing — at no cost — the space for volunteers to work.

It’s the volunteers, though, that makes the entire operation function.

“(We have) been very lucky to have 43 active volunteers. (That’s) just unimaginable in today’s day and age,” Williams said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Volunteers gather Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings form 8 a.m. until noon.

“Having that number of people allows quite a group to be existing here at any one time,” Williams said.

That includes woodworkers and painters at the shop and a group that do the cloth work remotely.

There is a two-hour, six-day training program for potential volunteers, just to ensure people can use the various machines safely.

“We’re always looking for volunteers, both painters and woodworkers,” Williams said. “We have about 300 different patterns (and) have all the models of what these toys look like.”

And there’s space for volunteers to really get creative with the toys that are being built.

“A lot of people are quite advanced,” Williams said, “and come in with their own ideas.”

They’ll see a toy at auctions and garage sales and see toys, buy them and then they’ll add those to the repertoire. The patterns are all designed in-house.

Volunteers can have plenty of prior woodworking experience or none.

“We’re open to both of those,” he said.

Williams said they do hope volunteers will commit to at least two days a week, acknowledging that appointments and other engagements come up.

“We are very conscious of trying to make sure we have the ability to distribute toys to people,” he said, “to keep the market alive.”

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