He’s a big kid at heart, a modern day Mister Geppetto who brings joy to children with the simplest of creations.
His wooden toys.
For eight years, Vern Heinle has carved and shaped wood – using poplar, mahogany and Baltic birch, mostly – into durable, practical toys reminiscent of yesterday to distribute to underprivileged children of today through the Forgotten Children’s Fund, a nonprofit organization.
It keeps the retired carpenter tinkering in his spacious, well-equipped workshop that sits next to his East Hill home.
In 50 years as a woodworker, Heinle still has all 10 fingers.
“I enjoy it, I really do,” said the 82-year-old gentleman, glancing at his assembly line of wooden toy trucks, tanks, race cars, helicopters and airplanes. “It actually makes me feel good to provide something to people who otherwise would not have it, and I also like to explore other possibilities, different ways to do things.”
The man’s woodwork wonders represent special gifts to many deserving families and children. Heinle has made more than a thousand toys over the years for the Forgotten Children’s Fund.
“He likes to please other people, more than he likes to please himself,” said wife Carolyn, who has known Vern for 46 years. Together, they raised nine children. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in his work.”
Using small patterns and templates for mass assembly, Heinle, a Santa figure, typically builds 300 toys for kids each holiday season. This year, he plans to distribute 120 handmade toys. His wood shop elves – son Bryan and friends Scott Mayfield and Eric Noren – help in the operation.
Heinle grew up poor on a farm in North Dakota. What little the family had, they appreciated. For a boy, it meant toys of imagination – sticks, stones and bones, even pushing along a tire.
“We got by the best we could,” he said.
Such perspective keeps Heinle grounded and keenly aware of others in need, especially around the holidays.
Toymaking fits his philosophy of life.
“A friend of mind told me, ‘It’s not about what you take with you, it’s about what you leave behind,’ ” Heinle said.
When Heinle shared his toys-for-kids idea with Jim Pelletier, the manager of a Shari’s restaurant in Kent, they decided to launch the drive. They’ve been doing it ever since, with the Forgotten Children’s Fund in mind.
“The connection was easy,” Pelletier said. “We do a food and toy drive twice a year. … In talking about it, one day Vern walked in with these toys he had just created. … It just happened.”
Shari’s restaurant continues to accept donations of cash, clothes and food, Heinle said.
The plan this year is to drop off his toys at 10 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 12, at the Kent Shari’s on Russell Road. Heinle said he will give out small wooden toys to children 12 and under that morning while supplies last. He plans to do the same thing at the Federal Way Shari’s, at 34900 Enchanted Parkway S., on Dec. 19.
The toys are resolute, just like the maker himself. There are no sharp edges and the wooden toys are sealed with mineral oil.
“Make them safe. I don’t believe in a lot of odds and ends on them,” Heinle emphasized. “And keep it simple … let the child use his imagination.”
“Every child should have a nice toy,” he said.
To donate or to learn more about the Forgotten Children’s Fund, visit online.