Meet The Team
Maryanne Freed has been a volunteer for Choose Life Toymakers since its inception in July of 2020. She and her husband, Bob, have given me firewood over the years and said they had some for me.
What was unusual about this load of wood was that it was not the usual logs; it was a pile of scrap wood from their builder's project. When I drove up to their house I was excited to see the pile of scraps. It was just the kind of wood I needed to make toys.
When I showed Maryanne one of the toy puppies, her heart melted. She held it to her heart and said, “I'll help you! I'll do anything you need!”
I took her up on her offer and she has been a reliable, regular, enthusiastic volunteer ever since.
All my volunteers start with a tour of the shop while getting acquainted with the tools and process. She started out drilling holes for wheels and windows but transitioned to the final stage of gluing wheels on and then using mineral oil for the finish. It has been a great task for her, especially during the pandemic, since she can do this at her home. She picks up and drops off batches of 25-75 toys to finish.
“It gives me a feeling of accomplishment, of sharing a piece of my heart with each and every child who receives one of our toys,” she said. “To see their smiles brings me closer to my faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and how precious every life is.”
Choose Life Toymakers would not exist without the inspiration and expertise of Bill Distel.
Before moving to Buena Vista, Bill volunteered for a non-profit in Las Vegas for 8 years making small wooden toy with wheels to give away to kids who need a smile.
When Mary Lee Bensman heard of this woodworking outreach, she enlisted Bill's help to start Choose Life Toymakers in Buena Vista. Bill had samples of the toys made in Vegas. He taught Mary Lee the system: Make a pattern, drill holes, cut, sand, glue wheels.
He is a wealth of information about the program itself. He has basically predicted how this endeavor would unfold from his experience. He knew volunteers would start helping. He knew the toys would be a hit with the kids and adults. He knew it would grow.
In addition to being a mentor, Bill glues wheels on the toys and finishes them with mineral oil.
“I do not have mobility so working on the toys can be done sitting down,” Bill said. “To maintain my mental capability occurs as I assemble the toys. I like kids, and ways to help them develop functional imaginations.”
Max Smith and I worked together at The Chaffee County Times for about three years. After I left the newspaper and started Choose Life Toymakers, he was helping me load some papers into my car and asked how the toy business was going. I told him it was going great.
“Are you interested in helping?” I asked.
“Well, I'm not disinterested in it,” he answered.
That was seven months ago. He came for a tour of the toy workshop with his camera and recorder. He had never worked with wood or any of the tools in the shop.
We each started with a block of wood and I after I demonstrated each step, he tried each tool by making a toy along with me. He also took photos.
“I assume you asked me here to show that if I could do this, anybody could,” he said.
I laughed at the idea.
He interviewed me about Choose Life Toymakers and wrote a front page feature for The Chaffee County Times.
He also became a dedicated weekly volunteer.
There was a huge learning curve, but he kept coming each week for two hours.
While Max has now learned all aspects of the toymaking process and helps with whatever is needed, but when given the option he usually chooses cutting the shapes out on the bandsaw.
He started out on basic blocky vehicle shapes. One day I asked if he wanted wanted to try a puppy.
“I don't think I'm ready for animals yet.”
I'm here to tell you that he now not only does the easy animals, he can now do all of the more complicated toys. He warms up on the rough-cut bandsaw and then goes to the smaller blade to do the intricate curves that require finesse. Sometimes I check on him from across the shop and always he is totally focused on the task at hand. And he has confidence in his ability now.
When Choose Life Toymakers set up a booth at the Fourth of July Art in the Park, Max came by to check it out. He ended up staying five hours, watching, as we all did, kids, parents and grandparents come into our booth to select a free toy. We watched people stuff money into our donation jars – even if they didn't take a toy.
He told me that he enjoyed the dynamic of everyone seeing the mission fulfilled together. Since January, he had been coming into a little workshop and mostly cutting toys and then they went to another volunteer for finishing. For the first time, he saw the big picture. He got to see the value of the mission in the kids' reactions.
“People didn't know how to deal with the toys being free; we caught them off guard,” he said.
“In 2021 kids have been playing with I-phones before they could read or write.” He watched their excitement to get a toy that is so simple.
And yes, if Max can do it, anybody can.