Toys to help kids heal

Posted Sept. 20, 2010, at 10:39 a.m.
Tom Christensen works in his basement on wooden toys that he donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
Tom Christensen works in his basement on wooden toys that he donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
Tom Christensen displays some of the wooden car models he makes and donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
Tom Christensen displays some of the wooden car models he makes and donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
Tom Christensen traces the pattern for one of the wooden cars he makes to donate to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
Tom Christensen traces the pattern for one of the wooden cars he makes to donate to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
Tom Christensen works on wooden toys in his basement that he makes and donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
Tom Christensen works on wooden toys in his basement that he makes and donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. (Photo by Mike Mardosa)
A pile of wooden cars made by Tom Christensen that he donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. PHOTO BY MARK MARDOSA
A pile of wooden cars made by Tom Christensen that he donates to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison. PHOTO BY MARK MARDOSA

Most people’s basements are packed full. Old family photographs, records, furniture, you name it. But Tom Christensen’s basement is full of cars. Often as many as 5,000 at a time.

The handmade wooden cars Christensen assembles in his basement workshop are donated to children in hospitals and homeless shelters, or those with parents in the military or in prison.

“It’s all about making some kids happy,” Christensen says. “There are a lot of kids in tough situations that they didn’t cause. It gives them a time to step out of their problem for a while. Some kids just need to know somebody cares about them.”

The project began in 2007 when the University of Maine professor of electrical engineering technology saw an article in Workbench magazine. It was about the ToyMakers, a Florida organization that provides free wooden toys to children in need.

Christensen founded the ToyMakers of Bangor, and at first, he spent up to an hour and a half creating each car as a custom-painted work of art.

Now he’s whittled that down to about six minutes by simplifying the designs and leaving the cars unpainted in case their new owners want to add their own designs. Regulations at many hospitals and agencies now restrict donations of any painted toys.

The cars are up to 5 inches long and come in a variety of models, including racecars, minivans and delivery trucks.

And Christensen certainly knows his audience.

“The little girls, they like these,” he says, pointing out a hybrid-style car. “They call them mice.”

In the first six months of this year, Christensen produced nearly 6,000 cars. His goal is to deliver toys to each hospital in the state. Already, he provides wooden toys to more than 30 hospitals, agencies and groups.

Among them are Eastern Maine Medical Center, St. Joseph Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House, Manna Ministries and Hands of Hope Ministries in Bangor.

Once he delivers the boxes of toys, each containing about 75 of the wooden cars, staff members distribute them to children. Even for hospital waiting rooms that had to remove toys for sanitation purposes, Christensen makes enough so each child who visits a hospital can take one home.

“We don’t make any judgment calls, whether someone has the need or not. If the question is, ‘Can I?’ the answer is, ‘Yes,’” he says.

In addition to children whose parents are sick, young patients have considerable needs, as well. The toys help children in hospitals feel more comfortable, says Sandra Gordon, community relations coordinator at Waldo County General Hospital. At the hospital, emergency room and ambulatory care staff distribute the cars to young patients.

“It helps them to relax and to think about playing a little bit, and it takes their minds off their surroundings there,” Gordon says.

Christensen, the father of three grown children, also knows that siblings of sick children often get unintentionally overlooked.

“It’s not the hospital’s job to look after them, and the parents are stressed enough,” he says. For that reason, he makes sure each child who wants a car can have one.

He says even teen patients make use of the toys, painting them or decorating them with markers and stickers provided by the hospital or their family.

In addition to the cars, Christensen creates wooden nut-and-bolt toys for stroke patients to use to help regain fine motor skills. He says feeling the grain of the wood evokes memories. His wife also crochets lap robes for area hospitals.

Christensen, who is semi-retired from the university, dedicates up to 50 hours a week making toys, more than some people work at their full-time jobs. Yet, he points out, it’s only a quarter of the 168 hours in a week.

“My wife says I’m possessed,” he smirks, “but really, there’s just not enough time in the day. I spent 30-plus years at the university, and I felt as that was winding down and coming to a close, you’ve got to find other things to do.”

Christensen is full of restless energy, his hands grazing the smooth surfaces of his cars as he moves from room to room, his voice filling in gaps in conversations.

“It’s something to do, you know?” he says. “You’ve got to do things to keep you awake.”

A dozen plastic barrels line his basement workshop, packed with wood scraps of every dimension donated by Milo’s JSI Store Fixtures and Orono’s Shaw & Tenney.

To build a car, Christensen chops each plank into equal lengths. He then splits the blocks in half diagonally, producing the frames for two cars. He checks each piece for splits and roughness, then rounds the edges, drills the axle holes and sands it twice over.

A handful of Christensen’s friends have been coming over a couple nights a week since the beginning of the year to “play in traffic,” as he puts it, helping him cut car bodies, round the edges or drill holes for axles.

Every month or so, Christensen spends about $500 on wooden wheels and dowels purchased from Casey’s Wood Products in Wiscasset. His church, First United Methodist of Bangor, recently held a bean supper and donated half the proceeds to his project.

In addition to his friends and church family, Christensen’s wife and children help him in his work. His sons, ages 22 and 30, help sort materials and cut parts, while his wife, 27-year-old daughter, and 6-month-old granddaughter accompany him to hospitals for toy drop-offs.

From the time he was in seventh grade, Christensen knew he wanted to be an engineer.

“How else can you design and build stuff that’s cool?” he says. “And that’s what I’ve spent my life doing. Building stuff. And lots of it.”

Christensen graduated from UMaine with his bachelor’s in agricultural engineering in 1971 and his master’s in 1973. He began working for the university in 1974, first for the Department of Agricultural Engineering in the College of Agriculture and then the College of Engineering.

This spring, the university recognized his volunteer work with a Presidential Public Service Achievement Award, which he received at the May 7 Academic Honors Convocation at the Collins Center for the Arts.

Now he hopes to recruit fresh hands for his project, ideally someone in each town to work with his or her area hospital.

“It’s not complicated, it’s not expensive,” he says. “I’m not going to be around forever, but I’m going to do it as long as I’m able.

“You just keep driving, keep doing it,” he says. “When the little kids smile, when parents and staff say thank you, you keep going. You just keep sowing seeds.”

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