Toy donations this time of year are fairly common, but the stable of wooden rocking horses, “Story Time” benches, wooden puzzles and other handmade toys picked up by the U.S. Marines on Tuesday are not your every-day donations.
They are unique not so much because they are handmade—though that does make them special—these toys were made by inmates at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas.
“We’ve been doing this for about 18 or so years,” says Willie Chan, CSA supervisor, industries and operations.
One instructor and about six inmates work on building the toys throughout the year and since the inmates come and go from the facility their number fluctuates a bit as does the team doing the building.
This year about 400 toys—made with wood donated by a local shop—were donated for distribution through Toys for Tots.
To get into the program inmates must pass a basic logic and behavior test and be incarcerated for lower-level crimes. It offers them an opportunity to learn new skills, or as in the case of Joseph Taylor, 33, it allows him to practice woodworking skills he already had.
“It keeps me tuned up,” Taylor says. “It helps the time go by.”
In his outside life Taylor, from Santa Cruz, works as a carpenter, something his grandfather did his whole life. One of his favorite projects at home was restoring an original Radio Flyer wagon.
Incarcerated for nine months with three months left, Taylor is in the facility for probation violation and theft, he says.
He’d like to make some toys on the outside of the lock-up walls for his 3-year-old child, he says.
Jon Del Conte, the instructor who also teaches at Milpitas Adult Education, teaches inmates the skills needed to build the inventory. Some need to learn the basics; others come in with experience. Pointing out some toys with more elaborate cuts on them Del Conte says in this year’s group had a couple guys who were pretty good with the scroll saw.
Chan, of San Ramon, holds up a tiny wooden crib bedded with a lavender mattress made in the upholstery shop that is part of the entire facility Chan oversees.
In addition to the wood shop, Elmwood has a welding and body shop where inmates work on county vehicles and other equipment, and there is a laser machine in the engraving shop the county uses to make plaques, signs and other items that would otherwise cost much more to have produced using an outside resource.
Some of the things the facility and Chan have turned out that can be found throughout the county include the stage and a railroad crossing sign at Christmas in the Park, and a wishing well at Happy Hollow Park and Zoo.