Toymaker, volunteer assistants construct, give away 85,000 wooden cars
Gene Wilson (left) has been a volunteer toymaker with Alton Thacker since the beginning, in 2002. (Carl Fauver)
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West Jordan philanthropist and toymaker Alton Thacker is a man of big numbers.
For starters, he’s 81 years old. He’s been married 64 years. He was a barber 47 years.
“Oh, and when my grandson marries this summer, his new bride will be the 100th member of our family,” Thacker adds.
That includes seven kids, 27 grandchildren, 38 great grandkids, and nearly 30 who joined the small army through marriage.
But those “big numbers” are peanuts compared to the others in Thacker’s life.
“The LDS Humanitarian Center told me years ago, 500 million children across the world do not receive any new toys in a given year,” Thacker said. “When I heard that, I decided to do what I could to put a dent in that number.”
After starting modestly—and working at it for 15 years—Thacker and his volunteer staff with the “Tiny Tim’s Foundation for Kids” build 85,000 small toy cars each year to give away.
“When we started, we were lucky to build a thousand cars a month,” Thacker added. “But we kept at it. And we have increased our count every year, to the 85,000 we did in 2016.”
Thacker became aware of the need to brighten kids’ lives while making a series of humanitarian trips to Mexico with one of his barbering customers.
“I made a few trips to help distribute donated eyeglasses,” he said. “On some of the trips I played Santa Claus. When I saw how much the children loved and appreciated new toys, I got the idea to start making them.”
About two dozen volunteers assist Thacker at his modest West Jordan toy “factory” each week. The oldest, John, is age 92. The youngest are some pre-teen grandkids, who may not have the woodworking experience but move a whole lot quicker.
“We donate hundreds of wooden cars to hospitals and various charitable organizations every month,” Thacker added. “We also have an agreement with the Utah Department of Corrections which allows inmates—at their Gunnison prison—to paint 3,000 cars per month. It’s an honor they have to earn through good behavior.”
Thacker’s foundation has been running smoothly for several years now—until another big number came along.
“The rent on our shop recently went up to $1,150 a month, from $1,000,” Thacker said. “But more importantly, we lost a major benefactor.”
For the past several years, a Utah County businessman has donated $15,000 a year to Tiny Tim’s Foundation for Kids to cover rent and electricity costs. But he recently had to discontinue that support. Since Thacker’s woodshop doesn’t have any income, the lost revenue is squeezing his charitable operation.
This summer, the nearby Taylorsville Chick-fil-A restaurant (5580 South Redwood Road) jumped in to offer assistance.
“I saw Alton’s story on television,” Chick-fil-A Community Relations Director Jeanaea Lorton said. “We often hold fundraising events at the restaurant, so I suggested we host one to help his toy-making foundation.”
New Chick-fil-A owner Matt Griffith loved the idea.
“I would like to hold fundraisers every night, if Jeanaea continues to find worthwhile causes,” he said. “This one is particularly special, because (Thacker and his volunteers) are doing so much, for so many people.”
“They keep seniors active, provide Eagle Scout projects, give prison inmates a valuable activity and create thousands of toys for kids who wouldn’t otherwise get them. It’s just a good, wholesome, neat thing.”
Because Thacker first got his toy-making idea while playing Santa Claus, the Chick-fil-A store was decked out with a Christmas tree and decorations, in the summer heat, for the fundraiser. The restaurant donated 20 percent of its revenues for three prime dinnertime hours.
“We raised a few hundred dollars, not a huge amount,” Lorton said. “But hopefully the fundraiser also created more awareness about Alton and his volunteers. I know at least two television news teams covered it, so hopefully that will help him generate more donations.”
When Thacker began his toy-making venture in 2002, three people helped him get started. Two have since passed away; but the third, Gene Wilson (who’s the same 81 years young as Alton) still spends about 15 hours a week at the toy shop.
“It’s very satisfying,” Wilson said. “My wife and I have taken several trips, giving toys to kids in places like China, Peru, Greece and Turkey. Our cars produce the same smiles, worldwide.
“(Alton) is a very generous, giving man. He is doing so much, for so many people. I’m proud to be a part of it. I hope he finds the necessary donations to keep it going forever.”
More details on Tiny Tim’s Foundation for Kids—and information about how to contribute—are at www.tinytimstoys.org.