"There's nothing more rewarding than the reaction you get from handing a toy to a destitute child," Alton Thacker tells PEOPLE
Santa has wheels. Thousands of them, cranked out by hand from throw-away wood scraps, then painted and polished to bring smiles to the faces of kids around the world who may never have owned a toy of any kind, let alone a speedy roadster from Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory in West Jordan, Utah.
“It’s a year-round Santa operation of the merriest kind,” says Alton Thacker, 82, who started his toy workshop and foundation in 2002 and now gives away more than 85,000 cars a year to children from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe in addition to needy kids at children’s hospitals and homeless shelters in his own community.
“Basically, we’ll give cars to anyone who wants them, especially if they’re going on an overseas trip and have room to tuck a few into their suitcases,” Thacker, a retired barber, tells PEOPLE. “There’s nothing more rewarding than the reaction you get from handing a toy to a destitute child. It’s addicting.”
Indeed, those who volunteer at Tiny Tim’s factory (named after an impoverished, disabled boy encountered by Thacker during a trip to Mexico in the late 1990s), feel the same way.
“I can’t thank Alton enough for giving me the opportunity,” Jim Turnbull, 71, of West Valley City, Utah, tells PEOPLE. One of 25 regular volunteers (another 300 show up on a sporadic basis), working eight hours a day, three days a week, “It’s an honor to be a Santa’s elf,” he says. “I took a bunch of cars to China once and handed them out everywhere I went. Seeing those smiles is the best part of any vacation.”
Thacker also gets a lot of help from his wife, Cheryl, 82, who pitches in to run the band saw and put wheels on cars before they’re sent to the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, where inmates paint about 3,000 toys a month in bright shades of purple, red, pink, yellow and blue.
“I can pretty much run any of the equipment as Mrs. Claus,” she says, “but the best part is sharing a little bit of Christmas spirit, year-round. Kids enjoy getting our cars in July just as much as they do in December. We’ve sent more than 60,000 of them to Zimbabwe through a group called Eyes for Zimbabwe to bring some joy to the lives of kids who have nothing.”
Former high school classmates who met while growing up in Duchesne, Utah, in 1953, the Thackers developed a love for charity work 32 years ago, when they made their first trip to Mexico with one of Alton’s longtime barbershop customers to hand out donated eyeglasses.
“Every day, somebody would stand up and shout, ‘I can see!'” recalls Alton. “We knew that we had to keep going back.”
Their annual expeditions soon morphed into Santa excursions, with the Thackers filling a trailer 10 times a year with toys, clothing, school desks, wheelchairs and medical supplies and delivering them to the impoverished town of Casas Grandes. Then when drug cartels made the trips too dangerous, Alton came up with the idea for Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory.
“For too many kids, one of our little wooden cars is the only toy they’ll ever get,” Alton tells PEOPLE, “and that’s what keeps me going. I’m told that the need for toys around the world is more than 500 million. Can you imagine that? Five hundred million! So it looks like we’ve got a little work to do at Tiny Tim’s to keep up.”