Some church members in Florida get to share the Christmas spirit all year long. They staff a toy factory that creates very simple gifts for children facing tough times. But volunteers say they receive much more than they give.
(Locator: Palm Harbor, Florida)
“Which one do you like best? Batmobile!”
Gene Watson: “These children, life has hit them pretty hard. Just a simple toy can make a real difference in their life.”
“There you go. Yeah! Yeah.”
Gene Watson, ToyMakers Ministry, East Lake United Methodist Church: “I’m Gene Watson, I’m one of the toymakers of East Lake United Methodist Church in Palm Harbor, Florida. Our purpose is very simple. We make toys. We make toys for special kids who are in the hospitals, in shelters, and Ronald McDonald houses, kids who are in low income areas.”
(Handing out toys) “Who wants a car? Me, me, me? Who would like a boat? I'd like a boat!”
Gene Watson: “These kids all have something in common. They’re in a tough spot…”
(Little girl) “That’s my car!”
Gene Watson: “…and we hope that these toys will give them a little bit of diversion, a chance to play together to learn cooperation.”
Gene Watson: “The church purchased this piece of property in 2007. Since that time, I think we’ve made something in the neighborhood of 25,000 toys and they’ve been distributed around the world — Nigeria, St. Croix, Jamaica.”
Karen Epting, ToyMakers Ministry, East Lake United Methodist Church: “We have between 40 and 50 toymakers on the roster right now. This is a business. We are a family. We’re open four days a week and for a lot of the people who are retired this is their job. They’re here every time the doors are open.”
(Volunteers at workbench)” The only thing he knows is wheels! He doesn’t really want to do any other work!”
Gene Watson: “Some of us came to ToyMakers after a period when they were floundering, needing a sense of purpose. And ToyMakers has been the difference.”
John Little, ToyMakers Ministry, East Lake United Methodist Church: “My name is John Little. I’m a retired major general and I’ve had organizations that included 20,000 people, but this is probably as much fun, working with these retired guys, as anything I’ve done before.”
(Volunteers in workshop) “Ya gotta have a good time doing it. Cause it is worthwhile. You watch those kids, it’s worthwhile.”
(Karen Epting at hospital) “They’re not just toys, they’re smiles. We don’t make toys, we make smiles, don’t we? Yeah.”
Karen Epting: “We have people from 14-years-old to 92-years-old. We get a lot of people from the high schools that need community service hours, but what’s surprising to me is that they stay after they’ve completed their hours.”
Fourteen-year-old Volunteer: “These people give back to their community. I’d like to do the same.”
Gene Watson: “ToyMakers also has a bike project, refurbishing some bikes and giving them to homeless folk in our neighborhood. And then the Haiti earthquake happened and we sent bikes to Haiti.”
Gene Watson: “A milling shop gives us all the lumber that we could ever use; a paint store gives us the paint. They want to serve the community, too.”
(Watson at preschool with children) “Thank you for the hugs. I love the hugs. And you like the princess car.”
Karen Epting: “It’s not just about what’s going in the box, it’s about what’s going on inside that building. It’s like Santa Claus all year long."
Kids: “Thank You!” Gene Watson: “You’re very welcome.”
Gene Watson is a retired United Methodist minister who moved to Florida from Nebraska. This time of year, his surroundings might be reminiscent of the North Pole ... but there's nothing seasonal about the generosity and effort of the these toymakers.
The toymakers have done a considerable amount of research to be sure the toys comply with product safety standards. And they want to spread the word that they are happy to share their expertise and suggestions with any other groups that might think about starting something similar.
For more information, visit their website or contact Bob Helms at 813-777-0787.