A long-haul truck driver recently walked into Tiny Tim’s Toy Foundation in West Jordan, Utah, and asked for a box of toys. Alton Thacker gave him five, each packed with 125 cars.
“He stopped at children's hospitals along his truck route and handed them out," said Thacker, 83, a retired barber who started the toy factory 16 years ago. "And I know he'll be back for more. Seeing all those little smiles is a great motivator.”
The cars — simple wooden toys with a painted smile — are made at the factory and given free to children in need around the globe through charities, churches, children’s hospitals and sometimes truckers who stop by for a box.
Thacker’s factory reached a huge milestone this year when he cranked out his 1 millionth toy. He celebrated for a moment and then got back to work.
"For every car we finish and give away, there's always another child who needs one," Thacker said. "For some kids around the world, one of our little wooden cars is the first and only toy they'll ever get.“
The nonprofit organization turns out between 80,000 and 120,000 wooden toy cars a year using a volunteer workforce mainly composed of retirees — with an average age of 80 — who are looking for a way to put their hands to good use again.
“The highlight of my week is coming to the factory to help sand cars,” said Wade Bender, 74, a retired high school biology teacher and football coach who drives 60 miles round-trip to Tiny Tim’s every Tuesday.
A car built from a block of scrap wood is a simple thing, he said, but the impact is immense. He said all kids react the same when they get the toy — whether they’re in a children’s hospital, a restaurant, a tough neighborhood close to home or a developing country. The cars have been delivered to children in countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Ghana, Thailand, Russia, Mexico and Brazil.
“Kids will drop to the floor and start ‘driving’ them on the concrete, the tile, the dirt,” Bender said. “The response of pure joy is always the same.”
The factory gets the wood from leftovers donated by local lumber yards and cabinetmakers, and the rent for the workshop is paid by a generous benefactor. The Tiny Tim’s Foundation for Kids buys paint and brushes with donations.
All that's left to invest at Tiny Tim's is time, said Thacker.
In addition to a regular rotating crew of 35 volunteers, he and his wife, Cheryl Thacker, also get help from churches and civic and Boy Scout groups that sign up for shifts running the band saw, sanding the cars or putting on wheels.
Most of the painting — in bright shades of red, green, blue and purple, complete with faces — is done by inmates at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.
Bender, who has delivered cars to the prison three times with his wife, Susan Bender, has noticed tears in the eyes of the felons, especially before the holidays.
“They’ll tell us, ‘This is the first time I’ve done something for somebody else, thank you,’ ” Bender said. “Many of them are fathers. So they know what the toys they’re painting can do to boost the spirits of a child.”
Thacker said he and volunteers initially provided guidance for the inmates, but for the past several years, the inmates have trained one another. Newcomers are trained by men who have been at it longer.
The idea for the toy factory came in 2002 when Thacker, who then wore a full Santa beard, and Cheryl Thacker, who sometimes sported red velvet, decided to turn donated planks of throwaway wood into toy cars.
"For years, we'd dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus and deliver eyeglasses, shoes and medical equipment to little villages in Mexico," he said. "And we both knew the important role toys played in helping little minds to grow."
Why not open a toy factory in Utah, they decided, and help take care of that need themselves?
Soon, Tiny Tim’s was born, named after a malnourished and disabled boy Thacker and his wife met during a trip to Mexico in the 1990s.
"We didn't know this is where we'd end up," said Cheryl Thacker, 83. "But when you have a man like Alton who has a big heart, you just go with it."
Thacker said it costs about $2 to make each car. If he had to buy the wood himself, each car would cost $5, and if he had to pay labor, each would cost about $16.
For now, Thacker estimates that another 15,000 wooden cars need to be traced, cut, drilled, sanded and stained or painted to meet his goal of giving away 120,000 toys this year before Christmas. He’s not worried.
"We have a small army of volunteers who want to get every one of our cars into the hands of a child,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, after the last box of cars is filled for a volunteer to hand out, Thacker says he plans to relax on the sofa, watch a holiday movie and reflect on the past year.
“At the end of December, we’re tired,” he said. “But our hearts are full. It makes me feel good to see the impact we’re making. I’ve always said that the secret of happiness is to make somebody else happy. So after the New Year, we’ll start all over again.”