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Manufacturing smiles

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Published:   |   Updated: May 4, 2013 at 12:57 AM

With more than 21,000 wooden toys crafted by hand in 2013 alone, one might think The ToyMakers is a constant operation.

The group, which offers the toys for free to the children who need them, is run by volunteers and survives on donations.

The wood is donated, and the finished products are wrapped in recycled plastic newspaper sleeves. The toys are packed into recycled banana boxes and piled high in the 900-square-foot workshop in New Port Richey, on State Road 54.

Even more impressive is the average age of a ToyMaker — 79, according to the group’s president, Bill Coccia. The group, very much a well-oiled machine, has between 50 and 80 members, depending on the season.

And despite aches, pains and bad knees, backs or hips, the volunteers gather up to three times a week to work on the toys.

The whole operation is based on one thing: making children smile, said Carl Hansen, who serves as treasurer.

Since 1982, the ToyMakers — a not-for-profit group — have donated more than 300,000 handmade toys to children around Tampa Bay and beyond. The group partners with hospitals, law enforcement and other organizations to make sure sick or needy children have a distraction during a tough time year-round.

“Kids don’t only get sick at Christmas time,” Coccia said.

The ToyMakers recently ventured into Hernando County through a community partnership with the Enrichment Centers of Hernando County.

Hansen said the toys have more to offer families than comfort. Physicians have told him that when parents have a very sick child, they tend to “concentrate” more on what the child is doing than what a doctor is saying. “If a child is happy, they can pay attention,” Hansen said.

And while the majority of the toys stay in the Tampa Bay area, the ToyMakers’ handiwork has wheels. Coccia said he recently learned some of the toys were sent to Cairo, and he received a photo of Egyptian children living in an orphanage holding up the items.

“It’s surprising where out toys go and what they do,” Hansen said, adding the crafts have shown up in Haiti, Barbados and Mexico, with the Coast Guard or missionaries, as well as many parts of the United States. “They’re so appreciative, and that’s what it’s all about.”

The ToyMakers was started by Jim McCullagh after he learned his grandson did not have anything to play with during a hospital stay. The ToyMakers started small and kept on growing and evolving. In recent years, area snowbirds have joined the crafters, and satellite shops have popped up in the county. The most recent addition is at Heritage Pines, where about 30 people started a workshop group.

“It helps us to grow,” Coccia said.

And while the ToyMakers work to create toys for thousands of children, quality is more important than quantity. The toys are cut from woods less likely to splinter, such as poplar, mahogany, walnut, cherry and oak; constructed without nails, screws or staples; and finished with child-friendly paint.

“The chance to use their imagination is lost when you have electronics,” said Hansen when asked how children today respond to such simple toys. “They challenge the mind.”

This effect benefits the crafters as well as the children, Hansen said. Instead of sitting at home in front of the television, retirees come to the shop a few times a week and socialize.

The tasks help in physical and mental stimulation and make volunteers “feel good about what they’re doing,” Hansen said.

But talks of political leanings or religious devotion are off of the table.

“We’re here for one purpose,” Hansen said. “And that makes for a really good group.”

The ToyMakers are set to make a quarterly delivery of toys Friday.

Coccia and Hansen said the group does not have any grant funding and relies entirely on in-kind donations. More information is available at www.thetoymakers.org.

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