Sounds of saws and whirring sanders filled the air. It was nothing new for Toys 4 Smiles, which crafts wooden toy cars for children in need. What was different was the group of people at the machines.
They were from Nellis Air Force Base, part of the Thunderbirds support team. The Air Force members spent the week of May 20 helping at the Spring Valley wood shop. Rex Doty, founder and president of Toys 4 Smiles, said having members of the Air Force help gave insight into how well-trained those in the armed forces are.
“This fits perfectly ... this is the face of our country,” Doty said. “They’re just so ‘stand up’ and positive, so you just tell them what to do. There’s no training at all. They see what to do, and they do it.”
That weekend, the organization was marking a milestone, celebrating its 150,000th toy car. It’s a huge number for an organization with meager beginnings.
“We started seven years ago with three of us, and we said we wanted to make 500 toys a year,” Doty said. “It’s just a good group of people reaching out to help our kids.”
The handful of military personnel had no experience with woodworking tools but said they are accustomed to figuring out how best to complete a task.
“I have never done this before,” said Maj. Curtis Dougherty. “I was told the best ones are those with no experience because, oftentimes, they’re the ones who are willing to listen and learn. So Rex is happy to have us.”
Instruction to cover the basics took no more than 10 minutes.
“Basically, Rex told us it was better to make one toy well than a lot of toys with mistakes,” Dougherty said.
The 3,200-square-foot space, donated by Gatski Commercial Real Estate, houses a number of machines needed to complete the cars — a miter saw, a band saw, a planer machine, a branding station, drills, a router and band saws. All were donated or lent by the people who form the core of the nonprofit. Wheeled carts carried plastic bins filled with toys in various stages of production. Signs on the carts indicated which stage it was, such as “Ready for edge sawing” or “Ready to inspect and sand.”
Off to the side, lengths of lumber scraps were glued together, ready to be outlined for cutting a number of cars or trucks, whatever combination would yield the highest number of toys.
Tech. Sgt. Sharon Tyree works in communications. She was sanding at a machine with a sign above it that read, “Leave the line and all will be fine.”
“Something like this, where you’re checking on something so closely, you have to (pay attention),” she said.
The Thunderbirds stopped flying “around April 20, right when the (federal budget) sequester began,” said Staff Sgt. Jazz Sutto, whose focus is recruitment, public relations and assisting at air shows. “Our commander told us, even though we’re not flying air shows, as far as getting out and meeting people and recruiting, we don’t need airplanes to do that.”
The Thunderbirds consist of 12 officers, eight of them pilots, with more than 100 enlisted personnel to support the team. With the sequester slowing things down, they had more time for volunteer opportunities. Each morning a number of volunteer positions are made available to team members, and they can choose which assignments to take or let themselves be volunteered into one.
Sutto was trained as a machinist and a welder and said many of the machines at Toys 4 Smiles were similar to what he uses. He has an 8-month-old daughter, Octavia, who will be getting a toy he helped make.
Tech. Sgt. Holly Mays said there were about 10 women in the group. Team members volunteer year-round and have done hospital visits, helped Habitat for Humanity, assisted with the designated driver program and worked setup and breakdown duty for the Special Olympics.
She said she had never done any woodworking.
“It’s actually kind of fun, and what makes it even better is knowing these will go to a good place, a good home,” Mays said of the toys. “I feel like I’m in Santa’s workshop because (these toys) are actually, literally, made out of wood. It’s not a stuffed toy with fake eyes. It’s the way they used to make them back in the day.”
In between crafting the toys, the airmen and women also got to hand them out. The following day, they were scheduled to give away the toys to children at University Medical Center Hospital.
Doty, a Sun City Summerlin resident, said that, as an all-volunteer group, he never knows how many people will show up to craft cars.
“You come in here, and you might see one or you might see 20,” he said. “We don’t have set hours.”
Sometimes groups arrange to help. An office wall was scribbled with their good wishes, with groups ranging from the Redrock Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to National Honor Society to Key clubs. Companies will also send volunteers, but the majority of helpers are individuals. More are needed, he said, adding that they have to be at least 18 to run the equipment. But younger people can help assemble the toys and oil the parts.
Doty said the shop can make as many as 6,000 toys a month. But with the fluctuation of volunteers, sometimes it’s only 3,000.
The lease for its current location is up this fall. Although Toys 4 Smiles is happy where it’s at, it’s still hoping for a permanent, climate-controlled location to be donated.
For more information, visit toys4smileslasvegas.org.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2949.