Santa Claus is coming, thanks to union volunteers

TACOMA — They’re a little too tall to be elves, but a group of IAM 751 volunteers puts in a lot of time in a toy workshop year-round, making sure that underprivileged Pierce County children will get a visit from Santa this Christmas.

ToysRobMarthaGeorgeThe members of the union’s Machinists Volunteer Program do it by volunteering once or twice a month at a charity called the Toy Rescue Mission. Last year, the Toy Rescue Mission provided Christmas presents, stockings – even wrapping paper and batteries – to 5,500 children from a building tucked off Sixth Avenue in Tacoma.

“Helping children out, it’s kind of a calling,” said MVP Committee Chairman Rob Curran, who is one of the regular volunteers.

The Toy Rescue Mission takes donations of used toys, primarily, then cleans them up and repairs them good as new, then shrink-wraps them. Families that qualify, based on income, then can pick up toys – and wrapping paper – for their children.

Christmas is the busiest time of year for the mission; however, mission volunteers also help provide Easter baskets in the spring, backpacks filled with school supplies in the fall and birthday gifts year round – including balloons and mixes for a birthday cake.

In all, 13,000 children received something from the toy mission at some point in 2013, Davis said.

Most of us have memories of favorite toys from our childhood. What we may not understand, however, is how important toys are in helping children develop into healthy, happy adults, said Martha Davis, who is the mission’s executive director.

ToysMrPotatoHead“Toys encourage creativity,” she said. “Toys teach children to share. There are a lot of skills you learn from playing with toys.”

In addition, toys help build self-esteem, she said. But if your family is poor, and can’t afford the toys that other children have, that can lead children to feel ashamed of themselves, she said.

The mission’s goal is to alleviate that.

The mission was formally organized in 1994. Davis wasn’t involved at the start – she was working as a regional manager for a chain of auto parts stores. Her first involvement came when the store got a request for 20 small bottles of automotive touch-up paint – all of it in different colors – from a non-profit she’d never heard of.

Curious, Davis said, she called to ask what they wanted the paint for. It was to repaint old Matchbox cars to make them look like new, she was told.

Touched, Davis authorized the donation and “I made the mistake of saying ‘if there is anything else I can do, let me know,’” she laughed. “Within two weeks they were calling me, inviting me to a board meeting.”

Likewise, the volunteers from Machinists Union District Lodge 751 got involved with the mission almost by accident, Curran said.

Three years ago, an MVP group was taking part in a Tacoma community event that wasn’t that well organized. “They didn’t have an assigned job for us,” he said. Davis needed volunteer help that day, so she talked the Machinists into helping her out — and coming back to help at the Toy Rescue Mission later.

“She’s a go-getter,” said George Braun, an MVP who regularly volunteers at the toy mission. “We love Martha to death.”

The work the MVPs do varies. Some days they wash toys, or shrink-wrap them. Other days, they’re helping out doing maintenance on the building.

ToysMonopolyMoney“A lot of it is counting parts and making sure it’s bright and brand new, so that when a children opens it, it’s all there,” Braun said.

It’s essential that every board game has all the pieces it’s supposed to have, said Davis. Puzzles must have all their pieces as well. Everything is tested to make sure it works, and any battery-operated toys absolutely come with the batteries included.

Families that can’t afford toys to start with simply can’t afford batteries, Davis said.

Davis said more than 100 Pierce County people will volunteer to help at the toy mission during a typical year. But the Machinists Union volunteers stand out for the “level of professionalism they bring as volunteers,” she said. They’re organized, she explained, and if they say they’ll be there, they’ll be there.

As far as the MVPs are concerned, helping children have happier childhoods is simply the right thing to do, Curran said.

“It’s part of what the union is here for – making the community better for all of us,” he said. “We all need help from time to time, but children, they’re relying on someone to help them out.”

Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at the Boeing Co., District Lodge 751 of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers now represents more than 33,000 working men and women at 51 employers across Washington and California.

Follow IAM 751 on Twitter.

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