A group of retirees, with help from current employees, spend months making toys from hand that are given to needy, hospitalized and otherwise worthy children

Kelly Broomall is too tall to be an elf, but the wood shop at his Troutdale home is busy year-round to the benefit of good little boys and girls.

Broomall is part of a team of 15 retirees from Boeing’s Gresham facility who for more than 30 years have put their work skills to use making Christmas toys for children.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Above, Kelly Broomall, left, and Rick Appleman install cord springs in doll cribs they are assembling at Gresham's Boeing plant.

“We’re all good at working with our hands,” Broomall says. After all, they make plane parts for a living.

The toymakers call it the Holiday Community Outreach Program, which technically is in its 30th year.

But Broomall, who knows a thing or two about being a grateful kid on Christmas morning, launched the program with another Boeing employee, Ron Case, back in 1978.

Broomall grew up in Philadelphia with his 13 brothers and sisters. His father worked for “Ma Bell,” formally known as Bell Telephone, as an engineer, but with so many mouths to feed relied on the kind souls at the Salvation Army for Christmas gifts.

“We probably wouldn’t have had much for Christmas without them,” Broomall said of the charitable organization. “I still remember the wooden toys they gave us.”

He also remembers the feeling of powerlessness he had, knowing he was unable to help his parents financially.

“It’s terrible,” Broomall said.

Broomall grew up to follow in his father’s footsteps and found work at Boeing as an industrial engineer in 1978.

That same year, he and a co-worker started making toys for three charitable organizations — SnowCap, the Sunshine Division and Toy & Joy. The next year, a third volunteer, Sue Enders, pitched in. Then a fourth and a fifth.

In 1982, the toymakers joined forces with another charitable offshoot of Boeing, whose employees had for many years been providing food to hungry families during the holidays.

Now known as Spirit of the Holidays, the program includes current employees who adopted families, equipping them with boxes of food plus toys for the kids. When the programs joined forces, the number of toymakers swelled from a band of five full-time employees to 35, most of whom were retirees.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - 'Lead Elf' Fred Krieger, 89, has been making Christmas toys for children for 26 years. He began working with Boeing in 1941.

The gifts have changed with the times. Raggedy Ann dolls in the 1980s have given way to baby dolls in handmade cradles complete with mattresses, blankets and pillows sewn by yet more volunteers, including some who still work for the company. Some years the toymakers make wooden cars and trucks. This year it’s train sets and cradles.

Volunteers make the toys for local children as well as children in hospitals and children of local veterans. After Sept. 11, 2001, the group sent 150 cradles and train sets to the children of emergency responders in New York who died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Fred Krieger, 89, is the longest serving volunteer toymaker. He began volunteering with Broomall 26 years ago after retiring from the Boeing plant in 1986.

He even roped his wife, Frances, into it: She’s sewn everything from stuffed animals to pillows.

Illness has forced Frances to sit out the program the past two years. Last week, hospice workers came to their Northeast Portland home. But Krieger still made it out to the plant to help with the cradles.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Doll cribs are marked with the names of volunteers who died this year.

“It’s something to do,” he says. “Some people golf. We do this.”

The annual gathering of the retirees every October has come to symbolize the kickoff for the holiday season for all employees.

Broomall and Mike Murphy of Boring spend all year cutting wood, sanding and preparing wooden pieces to be made into toys. Then he brings them all to Boeing’s cafeteria, where starting in October, volunteers work four-hour shifts three times a week sanding, assembling, packaging and wrapping toys until the last one is delivered, usually about a week before Christmas. This year, deliveries will be made Saturday, Dec. 15.

“It’s always a thrill,” Krieger says. “To know who will be getting them and to know they’ll be appreciated. Some families are in bad shape.”

As for the toy-making, “It’s kind of a get-together of old friends,” Krieger says, adding that he made many friends over his 45 years working at Boeing.

“Why sit around when there’s something to be done to help?” he asks. “I just enjoy it. I’ll probably do it again next year if I’m still here.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Finished doll cribs, complete with three-piece bedding sets sewn by volunteer Boeing employees, plus dolls, sit ready to be delivered.

Boeing employee Jennifer Steele has volunteered for 25 years sewing stockings for adopted families, sewing blankets for the toymakers’ cradles and even sanding wood that later was made into log trucks.

She knows the joy these toys bring children — children in such dire straits that they recognize a cradle or train as a cherished extra.

“They’re not looking at something wrapped, they’re looking at the food,” Steele says. “The oranges, the apples.”

Sometimes a mother will discreetly ask if the food boxes include toilet paper.

“It’s very sad,” Steele says.

It’s also a lot of work. Broomall retired in 2010, and this year he spent an estimated 1,500 hours in his wood shop preparing the wood to be made into toys.

And the work load increases as age conspires against the retirees.

Or as Broomall puts it, “They fall off the other side.”

“We lost two key players this year,” he says. Each cradle is marked with their names — Bob Regan and Ray Schwartz — in their memory.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Jennifer Steele, left, and Kaye Morrison fold blanket sets for cribs that Steele and four other volunteers sewed. Each of the 65 sets consists of a blanket, mattress and pillow. Steele has volunteered with Holiday Community Outreach Program for 25 years.

It’s a sad situation, and Broomall finds himself facing it more and more. “The ranks have been thinning,” Broomall says, adding that volunteers numbered 50 at the program’s peak. Today there are only 15.

Broomall, at 70, is the youngest volunteer. Next year will be his 36th year in the program and very well could be his last.

He’s planning to end the program after next year.

Employees will continue to adopt families. The families just won’t get the handmade toys as in years past.

“We would lose a key part of it,” says Jason Marr, another employee who volunteers on the company’s executive committee, which oversees the Spirit of the Holidays program.

Marr also fears how the Program’s loss will affect the retirees.

“I’ve had more than one elf say, ‘This is what keeps me going,’ ” Marr said.

Retirees who have the time to make toys are running out of energy. Or health problems prevent them from volunteering.

Newer employees have the energy but not the time to give, with young families to tend to.

Employees who help with the Spirit of the Holidays Program dread the day the toymakers hang up their woodworking tools.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Steele says.

But they will continue to provide food boxes with meat, fresh produce, dairy products and candy to needy families.

“It helps set up our holiday spirit because we know what real need is,” Marr said. “How lucky we are to have good jobs, especially these last few years.”

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