McKINNEY, Texas – Gene Dunham, 81, can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around the earthy, sweet scent of fresh lumber. His grandfather and father taught him as a boy how to cut and carve wood with a jigsaw.
When he read a newspaper story almost two decades ago about the Hobby Crafters, a group in Dallas that built wooden Christmas toys for poor children, he drove to meet its members and to volunteer his services.
Two years later, Dunham and some friends opened their own wood shop. Almost every Tuesday morning since, he has organized a handful of retirees from Community North Baptist Church to cut, sand and finish wooden toys for patients at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. The group – about 10 woodworkers and eight seamstresses – makes as many as 1,700 handcrafted toys a year.
Most of the seamstresses are wives of the woodworkers. The women, who call themselves the Loving Hands, fashion items such as doll clothes and drawstring bags for wooden jigsaw puzzles.
“We work together hand in glove,” Dunham said.
A few cabinet shops donate scrap wood to the toymakers, and they raise money for other materials through craft sales at the church.
Some of the toys are sold at the hospital’s and holiday and summer bazaars and bake sales. Shoppers at the bazaars appreciate the handmade quality, Dunham said.
“You can get a rocking horse anywhere, but you couldn’t get one more durable than that one there,” he said, pointing at a brown toy horse, one of a dozen on a shelf in the wood shop.
Some of the toys are presented as gifts to comfort children before surgery. Others are used in recreational camps and hospital playrooms.
Dunham’s crew also turns out wooden airplanes, cars, letters, shadow boxes, picture frames and other items that the young patients can paint and decorate. Some items, including birdhouses and pencil boxes, are delivered in pieces for the kids to assemble.
“The thing about the wooden toys is they’re such a blank canvas for them to express themselves on,” said Andrea Brown, a child life specialist at the hospital, who works with Dunham to come up with a list of items for the playrooms.
Patients come to the hospital, which specializes in pediatric orthopedics, because of conditions outside their control, she said. Creating something they can keep and maybe display in their hospital rooms helps give them some sense of control again, she said.
Dana Dempsey, a recreation director at the hospital who has worked with Dunham for almost 16 years, agreed.
“The crafts give the kids a sense of competence, control and accomplishment,” she said. “Who knows, maybe they will develop a particular hobby from them.”
Margaret Kykta, 14, has been treated for arthritis at the hospital since she was 4. For the past five years, she has attended a summer camp sponsored by the hospital. There, in crafting classes, she and others get to paint and keep wooden planes, coat racks and puzzles from Dunham’s group.
“It really warms my heart to know people take the time and care,” she said.
For more than 90 years, the hospital has provided world-class orthopedic care and other medical services at no cost to its patients. That care could be exceedingly expensive elsewhere.
The hospital is able to do so in part because so many people volunteer their time and money.
Some write checks. Some smile behind reception desks. Some serve popcorn from a colorful cart in the lobby.
Some make wooden toys.