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Toy Story

ae toySanta Cruz Toymakers celebrates 25 years with library exhibits

The story goes that Al Raboff, a Santa Cruz local, loved to fashion wooden roosters, helicopters, puzzles, trucks, and critters of any kind for his grandchildren to play with. But as the children grew up, Raboff never did.

He expanded his woodworking project to include friends. The group began meeting once a month at (the now defunct) Tiny’s Restaurant in Capitola to swap ideas, and show off the toys they had created. The collective began donating their toys to local kids via nonprofit daycare centers recommended by the County Board of Education.

Membership soon grew well beyond Raboff’s circle of friends, and the collective was given the name Santa Cruz Toymakers.

John Hall, who has been a member of Santa Cruz Toymakers for more than 10 years, is a woodworker in his spare time and used to make toys for his own children.

“I read something about the Toymakers and said to my wife, when I get around to being able to retire or have more time for myself, it would be fun to do something like that,” he says. “I found myself in that position in 2003, looked up the number of Al Raboff, called him, and he said, ‘Come down and join us at one of our meetings,’ which is what I did.”

Raboff moved from Santa Cruz to Walnut Creek in 2004, and has since passed away. However, his legacy lives on through the collective, which turned 25 this year and continues to meet once a month and donate their creations to local nonprofits.

Some of the Toymakers’ handiwork is on display in June at the Santa Cruz Main Library in Downtown. The exhibit, entitled “The Magic of Santa Cruz,” runs throughout the summer at local libraries and features toys that are modeled after Santa Cruz County attractions, including the Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz County Fair, the Watsonville Fly-in and Air Show, and marine life.

 In July, the Aptos Library will exhibit their work, followed by a showcase at the Live Oak Library in August, September and October.

Maria Castro, coordinator of the Central California Migrant Head Start program for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, receives monthly donations from Santa Cruz Toymakers. She works with 85 childcare sites that provide all-day childcare for more than 800 children of local agricultural workers. Many of the workers come from Mexico, where they played with similar wooden toys as children.

“Our parents work 10 to 12 hours out in the field, so they’re exhausted, so I think that a unique, different toy might be the catalyst for a few more minutes of play,” she says. “I love [the toys] because it’s exposing the children to something that is aesthetically different. And also I like it because I think that the parents might be more engaged playing with the children if they’re playing with a toy that brings back memories.”

On some occasions, local groups have requested specific toy designs from the  Toymakers. A local autism organization once requested toys that would work with the kids’ motor skills. So, the collective donated rocking horses and similar moving toys. 

Bob Finegan, the longest-standing member of the group, says his favorite toys to make are cars that children can push.

“We make a lot of puzzles and vehicles they can push around, or pull toys, that sort of thing,” he says. “I guess my favorite toy—I’ve made two or three of them—is a little hippo that they can push around and the jaw of the hippo moves up and down and makes a hell of a noise. It drives the teacher nuts,” he laughs.

The collective currently has 12 members, most of whom are retired, though Hall encourages Santa Cruzans of all ages and occupations to join.

“We have some people who don’t make the toys but spend time finishing them, painting, putting color on them, or whatever,” he says. “We’re all amateurs and we would welcome anybody at any level of skill. We have no constitution or rules, except make toys. We often get letters from the recipients or the teachers, and that’s really nice to hear that they enjoy our toys. That’s probably the thing that delights us the most.”

Check out some of the Santa Cruz Toymakers’ creations on display at the Downtown Library, 224 Church St., Santa Cruz, during the month of June, at the Aptos Library, 7695 Soquel Drive, Aptos, in July, and at the Live Oak Library, 2380 Portola Drive, Santa Cruz, in August, September and October.

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