CORINTH, Maine — Since he began doing it 21 years ago, Randy Elliott has made hundreds of wooden doll cradles for little girls from needy families, thanks in part to some help from his Masonic friends.
Three years ago, Norma Leighton of Stetson, whose husband, Gerald, is a Mason, headed up an effort to provide refurbished dolls and handmade clothing and bedding to go with the cradles. Last year, the all-volunteer effort grew to include toys for boys when Elliott, Gerald Leighton and other helpers began using leftover lumber to make wooden cars and trucks.
“I can’t imagine a kid waking up on Christmas morning and not finding something under the Christmas tree — or even having a tree,” Elliott said during a recent interview in the unofficial Santa’s workshop he created in the three-bay garage connected to his Tate Road home.
“I grew up in a big family and we always got by, so why not do something to help the kids, to help the community?” he said earlier this month. “It’s something to be proud of. There’s a need and we’re taking care of that need — from the Masons, to the non-Masons, to the women, the ladies.”
While many of the people involved in the effort are connected to the Masons’ Seminary Hill Daylight Lodge #220, some are from other local organizations, including the Order of the Eastern Star, the Newport Women’s Club and the Red Hat Society.
Other helpers are from the community, such as recent Central High School graduates Cody Caruso and Willie Bitgood, Elliott said.
Though the initiative started small, with Elliott making 10 or 20 cradles a year, it since has grown, and this year more than 200 girls will receive doll and cradle sets. In addition, 500 wooden trucks and cars are waiting to be set under trees and 200 more toy vehicles are awaiting finishing touches.
“He began this when our kids were little,” said Elliott’s wife, Kathy. She said the family heard about a toy project the town was spearheading, and her husband decided to offer some of his handmade cradles.
“Now, every Christmas morning I’ll say to him, ‘Think of how happy however many — this year there’ll be 200 — little girls will be when they wake up this morning,” Kathy Elliott said.
Since then, children from all over Maine have received toys made the Elliott, Leighton and other volunteers.
“They’ve gone from Caribou to Kittery and from Lubec to Rumford,” Elliott said of the toys. The toys are distributed through contacts from various Masonic groups, schools, town halls, libraries, food pantries and nonprofits — including Penquis, the Salvation Army and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Most of the lumber used to make the wooden toys is donated by the Robbins Lumber Co. mill in Morrill, while the Crescent Lumber store in Corinth kicks in a big box of screws.
It takes a great deal of work to come up with that many toys each Christmas.
“There’s 1,600 pieces to 200 cradles and they’ve all got to be cut, shaped, routed, sanded, assembled and stained,” Elliott said.
Coming up with the dolls also is labor-intensive. Norma Leighton and her helpers — some of whom are from as far away as Connecticut and Massachusetts — scour yard sales and flea markets in search of dolls to refurbish or use for parts. They also receive donated dolls, some new and some used.
“We get them anywhere and everywhere. We’re busy all year going to all the sales and whatnot,” she said. “I already have a box started for next year.” That’s because it takes all year to refurbish the dolls.
“The hardest part is getting the body ready and doing the hair,” she said. The process starts with stripping and sanitizing the dolls and ends with cleaning and styling the hair, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Sometimes, the kids [who previously played with the dolls] have maybe used scissors, so you have to restyle,” Leighton said with a laugh.
Leighton and her friends and family sew, knit and crochet clothing for dolls that need it, as well as blankets and other accessories. Leighton said she tries to match the style of the clothes to the kind of doll she is working on.
Besides need, there are two stipulations for receiving toys from the volunteer effort, Elliott said.
“First, it’s from Santa and second, that the package all stays together,” he said, so that dolls and cradles stay together and the bagged sets of roughly half a dozen wooden cars and trucks aren’t divvied up.
The group plans to continue the toy-making tradition but could use some help with raw materials. Anyone interested in donating lumber, hardware and other woodworking supplies should call Elliott at 944-0233. Those who want to donate dolls, clothing, fabric or yarns can reach Leighton at 296-2085.