Santa’s helpers burn the midnight oil at their Shirley Intermediate School HQ

With Christmas approaching fast, the elves at Santa’s workshop in Christchurch are reluctant to down their tools for the holidays.

Martin Thompson leads a group of volunteers who handcraft wooden toys to donate to children who might not otherwise receive a gift from Santa. The volunteers work out of the technology block at Shirley Intermediate School.

With about 1000 toys now ready for the big day, Santa Claus Workshop Charitable Trust will officially taking a break until the school opens again on January 31.

Martin Thompson leads the Santa Claus Workshop Charitable Trust at Shirley Intermediate School....
Martin Thompson leads the Santa Claus Workshop Charitable Trust at Shirley Intermediate School. Photo: Star Media
However, Thompson plans to keep working from home.

"I’ve probably got 10 boxes of toys to be painted," the 70 year-old said.

"I’m doing it over the holidays, and some of the other guys will be doing the same."

In addition to several off-site workers, the group has a core of 10 regulars who attend the workshop twice a week, mostly retirees.

“All these guys are keen to come back, they would come all over the holidays if we let them.”

The toys will be distributed to families by organisations such as the Mayor’s Welfare Fund and children’s charity Pillars.

From trains to tractors and from penguins to gorillas, a wide range of toys are crafted using top quality pine, he said.

Plastics and metals were avoided, and dowelling rods were used to turn wheels. The quality evoked toys from Thompson’s own childhood.

Movable wooden gorillas being assembled by Sandy Foster who has been involved with the Santa...
Movable wooden gorillas being assembled by Sandy Foster who has been involved with the Santa Claus Workshop Charitable Trust for the past eight years. Photo: Star Media
Even if left outside, the toys would still last 10 years.

A builder by trade, Thompson said his involvement in Santa’s Workshop felt like coming full circle.

“I love playing with wood, but it didn’t end up that way – I ended up playing with concrete. Now I’m back to playing with wood.”

Thompson is taking over the reins from Malcolm Westgarth, “a good man” who passed away last month after 18 years with Santa’s Workshop.

Thompson has been involved in Santa’s Workshop for eight years.

“I got involved because my wife decided that I needed something to do in early parts of retirement.

“I came along here with a Thermos flask one day and they just got me painting.”

Andrew Grant, Alistair McDonald and Neil Pugh making toys at the trust's Shirley Intermediate...
Andrew Grant, Alistair McDonald and Neil Pugh making toys at the trust's Shirley Intermediate School base. Photo: Star Media
Creating toys from scratch could be a complicated process, as it took weeks to craft small details and perfect the paintwork.

This was especially so in the case of the toys that moved, such as a rolling gorilla.

“There’s lots of moving parts. We’ve got a leg, we’ve got a shoulder, we’ve got three wheels.”

Woodwork came as second nature to him, but painting the toys was more difficult, requiring time and precision.

The Covid-19 pandemic also posed a difficulty to the volunteers.

“When I came here in 2014, I think we were making close to 1400 [toys], but of course with Covid-19 we were shut for five weeks this year. Last year was similar, we were cut down a lot.”

Lockdown happened so quickly they were unable to take unfinished toys with them to continue working from home.

The toys the group were currently crafting were all for next Christmas.

Neil Pugh, a former Lions Club member and QSM recipient for his work recycling spectacles for the...
Neil Pugh, a former Lions Club member and QSM recipient for his work recycling spectacles for the Pacific region, makes toys. Photo: Star Media
Toys for this Christmas were collected from the workshop in November by Lions Club members, who then co-ordinated the donations.

This meant the volunteers did not often see the responses of the children, but they had received heart-warming feedback in the past, Thompson said.

He had been told of a boy who was overwhelmed to learn he could keep his toy and said he had never been given a present before.

Another time, he gave a toy truck to a family with a boy and a girl.

The girl sent him a thank you letter containing three M&Ms.

“I’d given it to her little brother, but she said: ‘Thank you very much for the toy, I will get the most use out of it’.”

All toys were popular, but the volunteers tweaked their range each year.

Andrew Grant sawing a piece of pine to make a toy plough. Photo: Star Media
Andrew Grant sawing a piece of pine to make a toy plough. Photo: Star Media
The intricate toy sewing machines would not be made next year.

However, he had a new design for “gorgeous” stacking tower blocks, and toy boats were also being made.

New volunteers were welcome and no background in woodwork was necessary, although those involved tended to be good with their hands.

Santa’s other volunteers ranged from Alistair McDonald, a former woodwork teacher who joined six months ago because he enjoyed the sense of purpose, to Sandy Foster, who had worked in farming and in the army but always enjoyed DIY.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction when you see a toy finished . . . it’s worth it,” Thompson said.

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