When Ed Harrison found out 11,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year, "I almost fell off my chair. I thought, 'This is unbelievable.'"
Harrison, a woodworking student in a furniture-making class at Yavapai College, decided one way to help raise these children's spirits was to give them a handmade wooden toy. He and three fellow students started making and sending about 30 toys a month to the Phoenix Children's Hospital. He looked into Yavapai Regional Medical Center, but it does not have a pediatrics center, he said.
After a Nov. 2012 story ran in the Prescott Daily Courier, more volunteers came out of the, er, woodwork, and soon were producing 500 toys per month to 14 different organizations, including the Maricopa County Medical Center Burn Unit in Phoenix and the Flagstaff Medical Center.
"We give the toys to kids in crisis or who are in the hospital through no fault of their own," Harrison said. He would like to see the Toy Makers donate 1,000 toys a month.
Local recipients include Stepping Stones, Prescott Area Women's Shelter, children in the foster care system, special education departments in three public school districts, Catholic Charities, Arizona Early Intervention, Family Resource Centers, and Make A Wish Foundation. Some members also contribute to Shoebox Ministry at the holiday season.
The reason Yavapai Toy Makers is able to make and donate so many toys is because of the generosity of Ballard Truss, Inc., in Mayer. Office Manager Charlie Young said Ballard Truss has been donating the spruce, pine, fir cutoff scraps for a year or two to the Toy Makers.
"We can't use the cutoffs, and if people can use it, we have no problem letting somebody have it to use," Young said about the high quality wood that is worth about $1,000 per load. The Toy Makers pick up at least one load per month.
Harrison put a value of "priceless" on the donated wood.
"This quality of lumber is very important to us so each toy will be void of knots, splinters or wood filler repairs," he said. "We can not make top quality toys from low quality lumber."
Monetary donations from Kiwanis and Barrett Propane help with the purchase of axles and wheels. A few members create original patterns for toys such as sports cars, trucks, whales, and other animals. Volunteers cut, sand and install the wheels. The toys then go through a quality screening process before delivery.
"There are no gray areas when it comes to quality," Harrison said. "Just because you've made a toy doesn't mean it will get to a child."
Mike "Big Wheel" Foster, Prescott, checks the toys as he fits the axles and wheels. He will discard toys with splits or knots in the wood - knots can dry and fall out, creating a choking hazard - or if it needs more sanding or is too small. Holes for the axles can't be too high or too low on the bodies, he said. An eighth of an inch off can make a big difference.
Recently Jake Naujakes, Chino Valley, and Bill Curry, Mayer, created a pattern based on a Hotshot buggy, and volunteers delivered the toys to local fire stations to go to the families of the 19 Prescott Hotshot firefighters who lost their lives fighting the Yarnell Fire this summer. They made 200 in one week's time.
"We're working with Yarnell to distribute Hotshot buggies to those kids, too," Harrison said.
At the request of hospitals, the toys remain unpainted. Sometimes a volunteer will display a painted toy "just to show what could be done," he said.
Most of the volunteers are retired men, but not all. Karen Hollowell, Prescott Valley, is a "cutter."
"My husband was in construction and I acquired some skills that way, and also took woodworking classes in Mesa," Hollowell said. She works three days a week with Habitat for Humanity.
Most grew up working in wood or metal, like Curry. Darrel Waite, Prescott, said he was one of seven children with a father who was always in the shop. It's just a natural thing, Waite said about his toy-making hobby.
Sonny Hall, Prescott, joined the group in October. He's always been interested in woodworking.
"It makes kids happy, and it makes me happy," he said.
For more information, to make a donation, or to join up, call Ed Harrison at (928) 776-9193.