Made in Tampa Bay: 300 volunteers bring the joy of toys to kids in the Bay Area

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For many kids in the Bay Area, toys are a part of life. Whether for play or learning, they can promote happiness, sharing, and pride. 

For a child who doesn't have toys of their own, so many parts of life can be more difficult. 

That's why Bob Helps created ToyMakers of East Lake. He and his horde of volunteers gather four days a week to hand-craft fun, durable toys for the children who need them most.

"We make over 100 different models of toys," Helms explained at the ToyMaker's shop in East Lake. "It starts out with prepping the wood and then drawing the toy template onto the wood. Then we cut it out on the bandsaw, then it gets sanded, primed, painted and decorated. The wheels are put on, and it goes out the door."

At the start, almost 10 years ago, Helms and six volunteers worked out a 36-step, easy-to-follow system for making toys. Today, 300 Bay Area volunteers join him to carry out these steps and provide play and promise for needy children.

Now, ToyMakers volunteers produce tens of thousands of toys a year. They made 19,000 last year.

"We have a total of about 300 volunteers signed up. On any given day, we have between 20-50 volunteers that are actually working," Helms explained. "Volunteers really come from all over. Our youngest is 13. Our oldest is 99."

Seven-year volunteer Thaddeus Pollard got started after seeing an article about ToyMakers.

"It said they have everything volunteered except the wheels. I said, 'I can make wheels.' I came up and talked to them, and I've been going ever since," Pollard said. "My son and I saw them out. We've done as many as 650 in four hours."

The toys are made entirely of wood and then painted in bright colors.

The operation is an outreach program of East Lake United Methodist Church in Pinellas County, Florida, which owns the building where the toyshop operates. ToyMakers of East Lake is funded entirely by donations - monetary as well as wood, paint and other materials.

Because Helms developed the 36-step process to make toys, other ToyMakers organizations have been able to get going around the country. There are currently five in the U.S.

In the Bay Area, the toys are distributed to a long list of agencies and organizations; places like Tampa General Hospital, Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, Pinellas County Child Protective Investigation Division, Lighthouse of Pinellas for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Samaritan's purse, the Guardian ad Litem programs, and Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition. 

"With a simple wooden toy, they can use their imagination. In many cases, if they're in a really stressful situation, they're wanted to escape into their imagination anyway," Helms said of the children who receive the toys.

For more information on the work being done at ToyMakers East Lake, to learn about the 36-step process, or to volunteer, visit