Santa’s right-hand man keeps kids happy with wooden toys made at Shirley Intermediate

Santa Claus Charitable Trust manager Malcolm Westgarth and his helpers make nearly 1000 wooden...
Santa Claus Charitable Trust manager Malcolm Westgarth and his helpers make nearly 1000 wooden toys by hand each year for needy children. Photo: Geoff Sloan
It’s widely known that Santa creates his Christmas magic in the North Pole, but Malcolm Westgarth and his elves will have you believe otherwise.

Making nearly 1000 wooden toys by hand each year, volunteers at The Santa Claus Workshop Charitable Trust donate them to children across the city who otherwise would not receive a gift from Santa.

Malcolm, 83, manages the workshop at Shirley Intermediate School’s technology block, ensuring the toys are in tip-top shape for their new homes in time for the festive season.

He said many of Santa’s helpers were in their 60s to 80s. Like the others, a sense of joy washes over him when he hears of the impact the gesture had on childrens’ lives.

The toys were distributed to families by organisations such as the Delta Foundation, the Mayor’s Welfare Fund, the Shirley Community Trust and other charities.

“A little boy a few years ago was given a little wooden tractor; he was told he could take it home and that it was his. He just burst into tears, he couldn’t understand it. He had never been given anything like that before,” he said.

“That gets at our guys, they like to hear what happens and the stories where things are done to help these kids.”

Malcolm, 83, manages the workshop at Shirley Intermediate School’s technology block. Photo: Geoff...
Malcolm, 83, manages the workshop at Shirley Intermediate School’s technology block. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Nearly 16 years ago Malcolm had some spare paint lying around in his garage.

He was adamant it would not go to waste. It was Resene paint, after all.

His wife instructed him to take it to the Shirley Community Centre which knew of others who needed it and eventually connected with Santa’s workshop.

The workshop has been providing Christmas joy to children since 1978 when two Richmond carpenters decided to do something new with their Sunday mornings.

They put a call out in “the local rag” for donations of broken wooden toys, which they repaired and donated to needy families in the area.

They operated out of the community centre until the February 22, 2011, earthquake damaged the building. With support from the Papanui-Innes Community Board, they relocated to the school a year later.

“I donated some paint I had in my garage to the workshop and was asked within 10 days when I was going to come by and put it on the toys.”

The responsibility of painting the toys has mostly been his ever since, but Malcolm is not alone.

Twice a week for about eight hours he is joined by 15 volunteers who help cut timber and construct the toys either at the school or within the comfort of their home workshops.

Malcolm Westgarth. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Malcolm Westgarth. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Made of full timber with the absence of medium-density fibreboard, the toys were designed to last and range from dinosaurs, animals and cars to puzzles, games and building blocks.

It costs a minimum of $8000 to run the workshop, but large donations of timber, operating at the school rent-free, and financial support from The Lions Club of Christchurch helped the trust stay afloat.

Back then they made about 250 toys a year and has since grown to their personal best of 1300 in 2019. Last year they created 980 in spite of Covid-19 disruptions.

Because the toys aren’t made of plastic like most were nowadays, the wooden toys were “better for the kids.”

“They’re making a comeback. These are very popular because people know they’re going to last.”

Malcolm encourages volunteers to make about 20 to 30 units of their favourite toys, attempting to introduce a new toy every year.

He had difficulty determining which one was his favourite to make, but things such as sewing machines and toasters were what “dumbfounded” him the most.

More popular items included wooden chairs and cots designed for dolls, which are also supplied by the trust, including the bedding and the dolls.

The hardest part of it all was not being able to fulfil each child’s request and having the time to do everything.

Said Malcolm: “We used to have a telephone permanently hooked up. We would get phone calls from children asking for this and that. A lot of these things were not on our radar and we didn’t even consider making them.

“We try to give kids what they want, but it doesn’t work that way.”

Photo: Geoff Sloan
Photo: Geoff Sloan
Malcolm may be working out of the same rooms where he learnt the art of woodworking himself as a former pupil of Shirley Intermediate, but it was not his only passion.

He grew up in the area with his parents and twin sisters and attended Shirley Primary School.

He did not tinker in the workshop at home. Instead, he was an avid stamp collector and used to be the librarian for the Christchurch Philatelic Society for nearly 14 years.

Malcolm retired from his only job of 40 years as the sales manager for the Union Steam Ship Company, organising ferries to Wellington and cargo ships to America, India, Pakistan and North America.

He joined the trust because he wanted something to do with his time.

The trust is currently in the process of finding a new rent-free facility – about 300 sq m in size with enough storage space for a container.

More volunteers were always welcome, said Malcolm.

“The school have been very generous letting us have these rooms rent-free as they had more class room than needed, but that’s not on the Ministry of Education’s agenda [anymore],” he said.

“We’re all getting a bit older and we need more help. We need younger people to get involved too.”

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