McKINNEY, Texas (AP) — Gene Dunham, 81, can't remember a time when he wasn't around the earthy, sweet scent of fresh lumber. His grandfather and father taught him as a boy how to cut and carve wood with a jigsaw.
When he read a newspaper story nearly two decades ago about the Hobby Crafters, a group in Dallas that built wooden Christmas toys for poor children, he drove to meet them and volunteered his services. Two years later, Dunham and some friends opened their own wood shop on Coleman Street.
Nearly every Tuesday morning since, he has organized a handful of retirees from Community North Baptist Church who cut, sand and finish wooden toys for patients at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. The group — about 10 woodworkers and eight seamstresses — makes as many as 1,700 handcrafted toys a year.
Most of the seamstresses are wives of the woodworkers. The women, who call themselves the Loving Hands, fashion items like doll clothes and drawstring bags for wooden jigsaw puzzles.
"We work together hand in glove," Dunham said.
A few cabinet shops donate scrap wood to the toymakers, and they raise money for other materials through craft sales at the church.
Some of the toys are sold at the Scottish Rite Hospital's holiday bazaar, and its summer bazaar and bake sale, two annual fundraising events that benefit patients and their families.
Shoppers at the bazaars appreciate the handmade quality, Dunham told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/14xRbB8).
"You can get a rocking horse anywhere, but you couldn't get one more durable than that one there," he said, pointing at a brown toy horse, one of a dozen on a shelf in the wood shop.
Some toys are presented as gifts to comfort children before surgery.
And some are used in recreational camps and hospital playrooms.
Andrea Brown, a child life specialist at the Oak Lawn hospital, works with Dunham to come up with a list of items for use in the playrooms.
Dunham's crew will then turn out wooden airplanes, cars, letters, shadow boxes, picture frames and other items that the young patients can paint and decorate. Some items, including birdhouses and pencil boxes, are delivered in pieces for the kids to assemble.
"The thing about the wooden toys is they're such a blank canvas for them to express themselves on," Brown said.
Patients come to the hospital, which specializes in pediatric orthopedics, because of conditions outside their control, she said. Creating something they can keep and maybe display in their hospital rooms helps give them some sense of control again, she said.
Dana Dempsey, a recreation director at the hospital who has worked with Dunham for almost 16 years, agreed.
"The crafts give the kids a sense of competence, control and accomplishment," she said. "Who knows, maybe they will develop a particular hobby from them."
Margaret Kykta, 14, has been treated for arthritis at the hospital since she was 4. For the past five years, she has attended a summer camp sponsored by the hospital. There, in crafting classes, she and others get to paint and keep wooden planes, coat racks and puzzles from Dunham's group.
"It really warms my heart to know people take the time and care," she said.
For more than 90 years, the hospital has provided world-class orthopedic care and other medical services at no cost to its patients. That care could be exceedingly expensive at another hospital.
For example, a child who needs a prosthetic limb could require several fittings for new limbs as she grows. By the time she reaches 18, the bill could top $100,000. Surgeries and other complicated treatments might exceed $250,000.
Yet the hospital has never turned away a child for financial reasons. It's able to do so in part because so many people volunteer their time and money.
Some write checks. Some smile behind reception desks. Some serve popcorn from a colorful cart in the lobby.
Some make wooden toys.
"I get a lot of satisfaction knowing these kids get something they can be creative with," Dunham said.
His wife, Dorothy, one of the Loving Hands, recalled Matthew 25:40.
"I always think of the verse, 'If you do it for the least of these .' and I think of the babies," she said.
When the hospital requested chairs with no metal in them, so they would not interfere with MRI machines, the woodworkers delivered rocking chairs held together with wooden pegs. They've also made stepstools, coin banks and horses with moving legs.
For all they've done, Dunham remains humble about his small group.
"We're not creating anything," he said. "I believe God created everything. We're just fashioning things together."
The spirit of giving is contagious, said Stephanie Brigger, who coordinates donations at the hospital.
Sometimes, a child who leaves cherishing his new toy will return with gifts for other patients. One boy in elementary school recently dropped off thousands of toys collected through a drive he organized in his community.
"We have the philosophy that when you do something good, it will come back to you," Brigger said. "And we see that every day."
The Scottish Rite Hospital's holiday bazaar will take place Nov. 7-9 and Nov. 11 at the hospital, at 2222 Welborn St. For information on volunteering or donating, visit the hospital's website, www.tsrhc.org, or call 214-559-7650.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com