Every year about this time, Jim Thayer is a hard man to pin down. He is either at his job as a Metro mechanic, in his backyard workshop or at the wheel of a pickup truck, visiting as many children as he can.

To hundreds of children, Jim Thayer is Santa.

It all began 20 Christmases ago when Thayer, who lives in Franconia, gave a few old toys he had repaired to a needy family.

"That winter," he says, "I knew a poor family with several children. They could not hope for a nice Christmas.

"You see, I know what it is to be poor. And although I have no children, I felt sorry for those kids."

The next year, and every year after, Thayer added a few more children to his list. This year, Thayer expects to distribute about 5,000 toys, and over the years, he estimates he has given away about 35,000. "I found the project highly rewarding," he says. "So it grew and grew."

Throughout it all, Thayer's wife Irene has given her enthusiastic support to the project, and a number of others also have helped. These include local drug stores, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and the Springfield Civitan Club.

"We've been working with Jim since about 1969," says Stanley Segal, a past president of the Civitan Club. "Giving to the needy is Jim's big project. We're glad to cooperate because we feel he's doing a really wonderful job."

One of Thayer's helpers was teen-ager Joe Rie, who as part of his Eagle Scout requirements took on the project of collecting broken and discarded toys for Thayer. In the course of a few weeks, Rie turned in more than 500 toys.

"I attended the service in which Joe became an Eagle Scout," Thayer says. "No one was prouder of him than I."

Most of the Thayer's toys come from his neighbors, his Metro co-workers and strangers who have heard about his project and want to help. To assist them, Thayer has built a gazebo-like structure on his front lawn. Here anyone can leave used toys, dolls, stuffed animals -- even bicycles.

Thayer takes the donations into one of two buildings on his back lawn -- buildings now packed to the rafters with about 5,000 discarded toys. Thayer uses one building as a workshop where he repairs the toys.

"I put in about 25 hours a week the year around," he says, "here at home working on these toys."

But as the project has grown, so has his army of helpers. This year, they include members of a Girl Scout troop that is repairing books and a Brownie troop that is collecting books, crayons and stuffed animals for him.

His regular helpers include Molly Miller (the expert on stuffed animal repairs) and Mary Beilawski and Loraine McGuire (the doll experts).

Financial help for the Toy Project comes from the Springfield Civitan Club, of which Thayer is a member. Each year the club sells fruitcakes and nuts to raise money. Last year, the organization gave the toy project $1,300.

Even so, this is not enough to keep the project going. Thayer estimates that he spends $250 to $300 a year of his own money on this project. "That," he says with a smile, "is money well spent."

Many local groups have benefitted from the project. They include Christ Child Institute for Children, Hospital for Sick Children, Children's Hospital and St. Anne's Infant and Maternity Home. Some of his rebuilt toys have gone as far as Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Said Sister Elyse of St. Anne's Infant and Maternity Home: "Mr. Thayer has been delivering toys to St. Anne's for many years. He brings them on Sunday before Christmas and we give them to the children on Christmas morning. You can't imagine how excited the children are.

"We are most grateful to Mr. Thayer for his good works. He helps to make Christmas a time of joy and happiness for many unfortunates."

For Jim Thayer, delivery time is about the happiest moment of his year.

"I know what it is like to have a good Christmas," he says. "And I know what it is to have a poor Christmas or none at all. If I can possibly, in some small way, help others, I'm glad to do it. Just to see one child smile makes me happy. So the Christmas Toy Project is highly rewarding -- to the toy recipients and to me."