COLUMBIA — Where there's wood, there's a way to make a small child's day.
The Midwest Woodworker's Association makes as many as 6,000 handmade wooden cars every year for children as close as Columbia and as distant as Oklahoma, Texas, Costa Rica, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The woodworker's association has been making colorful handmade wooden cars for children for more than 30 years. It began under the association's mission of promoting quality woodworking in a safe way.
Many of the cars are given to children in need through outlets such as the Salvation Army, Rainbow House, Coyote Hill Christian Children's Home, the Ronald McDonald House and various churches and day care centers in Columbia.
"It's just giving back to the community in a simple and enjoyable fashion," Ernest Hilderbrand, a woodworker, said.
Members began by making Christmas toys for disadvantaged children. Each member would make 1o cars, and in the end, a total of about 300 cars were produced.
As the years passed, 300 cars weren't enough to meet the demand.
"Most of us don't realize how poor some people in the Columbia area are," Hilderbrand said.
The association received letters from Columbia families saying the car was the only Christmas gift their child received.
"We started small and now go through thousands (of cars) per year," said Harrold Ankeney, who estimates that he has built about 3,400 cars.
To produce enough cars now, about 20 woodworkers have adopted an assembly-line production method, as well as using their personal time.
Cars and festivals
It takes between 30 minutes and six hours to make the cars, depending on type and method used.
Cars are made from scrap wood, either donated or discarded at construction sites, members explained. The only cost is for wheels, axles and paint.
"It's a good way to get rid of scrap wood and help other people," Ankeney said.
The association often sets up a booth at local festivals, including the recent Heritage Festival and the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival,which is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
One morning during the Heritage Festival, dozens of children gathered around the woodworkers' tent. About 1,000 kids visit the booth each day during the festival, said Joe Gorman, president of the association.
Boys and girls came to the booth to help the woodworkers fashion a customized wooden car, many to add another to their collection.
Tre Coats, 9, was an eager newcomer to the booth on Sept. 21. His stop at the booth was prompted by his desire to get a car like the one his brother made.
Some told the workers at the booth that they now have a collection of cars from all the years they have attended the festival.
"We've been doing this long enough that the children look forward to coming to the booth," Hilderbrand said.
Early in the day a girl came to make another car for this year. In her hands she had last year's car in a sleeping bag that she received for Christmas, Gorman said. She had named her car "Car-y."
"In an age where everything is so high-tech, it's just a nice, simple thing for kids to do," Gorman said.
An idea spreads
Woodworkers send their cars to Costa Rica and Latin America through the PET Project, a Columbia organization that sends mobility devices around the world. A toy car is usually sent with a cart or a wheelchair, Hilderbrand said.
Hobby woodworker Neal Blount started to make wooden cars to send to Costa Rica about six months ago and has made about 950 cars since. He said he was struck by the poverty he saw when on mission trips in the country.
"I was raised poor," he said. "That's the way I was raised."
He understood the situation the children were in and wanted to give back.
"I can't go on mission trips anymore, and this is how I can be involved," Blount said.
He makes 18 different styles of cars; most of them are antique models. He used to paint them, but he felt it detracted from the vintage appearance of the cars.
As long as his health keeps up, he will continue to make cars, he said But Blount said he is confident he has many more years left of giving back, and he bought a new saw to continue his work.
"I want to do enough to make the saw pay for itself," he said.