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WEST JORDAN, Utah – Getting old often means facing change — changes coming so fast, you can barely keep up. Alton Thacker’s spent 2020 struggling against a number of changes that hit his organization, Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory, but he’s come to realize his age has been an asset.
“I had my 85th birthday, and that’s when I knew I was old,” Thacker said. “It’s fun getting old if you’re busy.”
Thacker’s spent years building toy wooden cars, handing out over 1 million of them to children around the world. With the help of donations and a generous team of volunteers, he does it all for free.
Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory has given away over 1 million toy wooden cars to kids around the world. (KSL-TV)
The beginning of this year brought an expected change: a new home for the toy factory. Thacker relocated from a space in West Jordan to a much larger warehouse near the South Valley Airport. The move had been a long time coming, as requests for his toys skyrocketed following an appearance on Mike Rowe’s show “Returning the Favor.”
That change in location was quickly followed by another — one not quite as welcome.
“As soon as the COVID hit, they started staying home,” Thacker said.
Thacker and his volunteers moved into their new space just before the pandemic hit. (KSL-TV)
Most of Thacker’s volunteers are right around his age, putting them in a high-risk category. His family wasn’t sure if he should keep working at all.
“They said, ‘You’re old, and maybe you hadn’t ought to,’” he said.
But Thacker wasn’t about to give up so easily.
“We’re going to do everything we have to do,” he said. “We’re going to mask up, we’re going to wash our hands, we’re going to clean the place, scrub down the doorknobs every day and do all the things they say. So far, knock on wood, we’ve been safe here.”
Dealing with the coronavirus right after moving may have initially seemed like bad timing. But the new building gave Thacker’s volunteers more space to spread out.
Slowly, they started coming back.
Thacker’s volunteers say the new warehouse gives them more room to spread out. (KSL-TV)
Ed Schryer, who goes by “Mr. Ed,” said coming to the toy factory gives him a chance to “get away from home.” When he’s not sanding the edges of wooden cars, he can be seen zipping around the floor in his electric wheelchair — he said he lost his legs as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Thailand as a medic during the Vietnam War.
“I’ve been overseas,” he said. “We used to go out in the bush, and we used to see people that didn’t have anything — didn’t have soap, didn’t have toothpaste. So I know what it feels like when they see something like that toy. It just makes people light up.”
For Schryer, coming to work was an easy decision.
Ed Schryer makes his way around the floor in his wheelchair. (KSL-TV)
“We got a lot of room and everybody covers up,” he said. “We kind of look out for each other, so I think it’s minimal risk.”
Volunteer Charles Despain felt the same way. After handing out toys to children on a trip to the Dominican Republic, he knew donating his time and his skill was worthwhile.
“They didn’t even know what the word ‘toy’ meant in Spanish,” he said. “It gives me the desire to keep doing that — keep making cars for little children.”
Charles Despain says he learned how much the cars are appreciated after a trip to the Dominican Republic. (KSL-TV)
At 79, Despain knows he needs to be cautious. But he has a lot of faith in the procedures Thacker put in place.
“We all wear our mask, all the time,” Despain said. “We’re all distancing out here. I feel very safe here, and it’s fun … being with friends I have made at the toy factory. New friends, wonderful friends.”
Accounting for the age of his volunteers was enough of a challenge for Thacker, but the pandemic also meant donations dropped.
“Our rent went up when we moved here,” he said. “We knew it would. And we’re struggling a little bit.”
Thacker was keeping his chin up, despite the unexpected changes — when yet another hit him out of nowhere.
“I had a stroke,” he said. “About three months ago, I had another one. And things did not go well. I can’t walk like I used to walk. I’m afraid of falling. It’s affected my memory. Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my memory the most.”
Alton Thacker’s been using a walker to get around after his recent stroke. (KSL-TV)
Thacker said his memory problems have been especially difficult — not just because of how they’ve affected him, but how he feels they may affect others.
“I work with the finest men on earth,” he said. “They’ve worked here for years, and I look at them, and all of the sudden, I can’t remember their names.”
Enough of a change — enough of a challenge — to cause even the healthiest among us to take a break.
“It was a Friday,” Thacker said. “And I came back Tuesday.”
Four days after his second stroke, Alton Thacker was back at work. In the face of change, he found clarity.
“When you’re looking right at death’s door, I’d like to die here,” he said. “You know, quick and easy. I don’t want to lay in bed for months, trying to die.”
A volunteer burns the words “Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory” on the bottom of the cars. (KSL-TV)
2020 has caused nearly all of us to face off with changes in ways few could have expected. Being able to embrace those changes might just require the wisdom that only accompanies age.
“The thing that I have learned by being old: If you want to be happy, you do something for somebody else,” Thacker said.
If you’d like to donate or pick up some cars to paint at home, you can visit Thacker’s website at tinytimstoys.org.
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