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Kent toymaker makes 300 wooden toys for charity

Vern Heinle works on a toy inside of his workshop. This Christmas season, the 79-year-old Kent resident built 300 cars, planes, tanks, and trucks for needy children.  - Kris Hill/Reporter
Vern Heinle works on a toy inside of his workshop. This Christmas season, the 79-year-old Kent resident built 300 cars, planes, tanks, and trucks for needy children.
— image credit: Kris Hill/Reporter

Vern Heinle spent a fair amount of time in his workshop this year trying to get a wooden tank design just right.

"I'm fortunate enough not to have to have patterns," said the 79-year-old retired carpenter. "I make up my own. I had to come up with a design that looks like a tank and is easy to build."

Heinle, who lives in Kent, will donate hundreds of handmade wooden toys including the tanks to the Forgotten Children's Fund this year. He often enlists the help of his grandsons, two of whom attend Kentlake High, in the process or delivery of the toys.

Now in his fifth year of building toys for the drive, Heinle has 300 cars, planes, tanks and trucks for children in need. A year ago he built about 200. This year he was able to build more toys thanks to the generosity of the community.

"Donations were wonderful," Heinle said. "I didn't have to dig so deep in my pocket this year. One person gave me a whole bunch of hardwood lumber. In fact, I had to make two trips with my van."

Heinle spent 40 years as a carpenter but has made toys as a hobby for decades. His house is filled with his handiwork, as well. There are toys, a rocking horse, cabinets, jewelry boxes, blocks worn smooth from use, the dining room table and more.

Work on the toys for this year's drive for the Forgotten Children's Fund — a non-profit which has been doing this since 1975, when a letter to Santa landed in a restaurant, where a group of people decided to ensure that needy children and their families would not go without at Christmas — began in September.

He first became involved with the holiday drive when Jim Pelletier, the former manager of the Shari's on 132nd Avenue Southeast and Southeast Kent-Kangley Road, asked him. Pelletier, who recently moved from Covington to Enumclaw, is now the manager of the Shari's on Russell Road in Kent so now Heinle drops off his toys there.

Every Shari's in the area, however, will accept donations of cash, clothes, and food, Heinle said, and he encourages those inspired to help to go to the restaurant nearest them to donate.

The plan this year is to drop off his toys at 10 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Shari's on Russell Road. Heinle said he will give out small wooden toys to children 12 and under that morning while supplies last.

Heinle gives credit to a number of supporters for his ability to build the toys, a project which has grown each year. He said he is particularly thankful for the financial support of Clarence Kitzan, Richard Metzger, Eric Norton, Bryan Heinle, Matthew Croft, Phil O'Neil, Scott Mayfield and Jennifer Tingey.

The past two years, the distribution point for the non-profit will be in Woodinville, Heinle said. Volunteers will wrap presents then leave from there to deliver them.

Heinle said a volunteer told him a story about a child's reaction a year ago to getting one of the toys he'd made.

"One little boy, a volunteer delivered the truck to his house, and his mother said, 'Let me see that,'" Heinle said. "And he held it against his chest and said, 'No. Mine.'"

Heinle knows the children who receive the toys he makes have so little, he wants them to have something that will fire their imaginations and give them a chance to be kids.

Heinle, of course, enjoys the creative process, especially sharing it with his family.

"Last time we finished the toys, my son Jim, he's 45, he was out there with his son painting cars, listening to Christmas carols and having a great time," Heinle said. "I love making something children enjoy. I enjoy creating things. At times I feel so exuberant when I'm out in my shop it hurts."

He encourages anyone who likes to make things to get involved as he has, whether it's woodworking or handmade dolls, or whatever sparks the imagination.

"You will get immense satisfaction," Heinle said.

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