By Dawn M. Aerts
Iron County Today
CEDAR CITY–This isn’t your typical factory. In fact, the factory workers here don’t get paid a dime.
In winter, some arrive early in the morning when the big room is still chilly and the workshop is dark. The work conditions are modest at best, but their production line is full of smiles despite the somewhat tedious nature of the job.
“There aren’t a lot of (monetary) perks here,” says Donna Cooley of the Happy Factory she dutifully cares for. Over the past 20 plus years, she and her late husband Charles founded the workshop with the help of donations, dedicated volunteers and businesses who envisioned sending small wooden toys — to kids around the world.
It’s a big job… that Cooley readily admits takes a community to accomplish.
And sometimes job satisfaction comes with smiles and a hug, says Cooley of the Cedar City charitable operation now international. That said, Cooley is more than surprised at how it all got started: In their back-yard garage where the retired couple spent hours fashioning wooden-yard ornaments at first, and later, simple patterns for hand-crafted toys.
She says their idea began with the notion of selling their creations at craft fairs, sharing some toys with grand-kids or neighbors, and eventually, for recovering children in hospital beds. Of course news spread, said Cooley of the early years and their regular visits to the (Primary Children’s) Medical Center and Shriner’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Then the miracles started coming.
“I still have to ask myself how, and why?” Cooley says, now surrounded by batches and boxes of little wooden shapes that are part of an assembly line — a production warehouse where people from all backgrounds, ages, and religions come together to create, what Cooley describes as a factory of ‘little’ miracles.
She can only smile as she remembers her husband’s knack for designing their seven little patterns of tiny cars.
“We decided to become a non-profit in 1998,” says Cooley of the work and distribution they had wanted to keep a secret but which exploded through word-of-mouth news by 2000. “Charlie always said (with delivering those toys) we got more hugs than we did at a family reunion!”
And the factory continued to grow.
Soon more volunteers signed on and miracles continued. “We had one local factory that donated huge bins of scrap wood,” says Cooley, “and a pickup load of hardwood strips” that inspired her husband to design their now signature line of small wooden cars. In fact, local cabinet shops, like Timberline Cabinets, have been donating scrap ends since 2004.
“I still can’t believe all of the blessings,” she said. As production increased their distribution list grew. Cooley explains that shipments now go to children in family shelters, churches, and schools, to Head Start branches across the U.S., to national and international foundations, to crisis centers and to needy kids around the world.
And the miracles also continued.
One company donated the use of a huge warehouse for six full years, while others came forward with finishing supplies and other needed donations. She is particularly thankful to companies like Metalcraft Technology who provided temporary building space and community leaders who stepped forward to donate.
“We learned that 500 million children live in a world without toys,” Cooley said. “But Charlie and I (along with hundreds of volunteers and donators) felt that we might not be able to make a toy for every child who needs one, but we’re certainly going to try!”
Since founding the Happy Factory in 1996, Cooley estimates that they have shipped over 1,445,459 toys to more than 600 organizations, groups and people in up to 125 countries. I guess you might say this is a labor of “production’ love.”
“I don’t think we fully know the impact of providing a simple little toy for a child who may never have received one,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s as if a light suddenly turns on and I have to say, we get inspired by all those happy faces.”
The Factory, now a world-wide operation of wooden toy distribution, also finds their way into the hands of children who have lived through a range of natural disasters. It was Charles who envisioned the design for seven wooden cars and trucks while Donna managed the production output with volunteers who do everything from cutting patterns, to varnishing, assembly and shipping.
“Once they’re ready, we sand them, coat them, and little wheels are attached,” Cooley explained. She estimates that it costs about 50 cents per individual toy, with some additional costs for wheels, saw blades, building maintenance and shipping fees. For that reason, The Happy Factory accepts donations on their website.
“We’ve even had people ‘hand-carry’ toys to places they travel to around the world, and to humanitarian organizations,” Cooley said. One of their most unique creations is a toy steam shovel which a child can both sit on and manipulate the bucket for seriously disabled children.
“It seems that these little steam shovels and little toys (that children can hold in their little hands) can help to rejuvenate minds, or help them to cope with the world around them — That’s why we call it the Happy Factory,” says Cooley with a smile.
For more information, to donate, volunteer, or to attend the 15th Annual Happy Factory Fundraiser Gala and Dinner set for Thursday, Nov. 9, 6 p.m. at the Sharwan Smith Center ballroom at Southern Utah University ,call 435-586-8352 or visit, www.happyfactory.org.