Alton Thacker still recalls the exact moment he witnessed the complete joy a simple toy could bring to a child.
Thacker and his wife Cheryl were posing as Santa and Mrs. Claus in Mexico, where they had traveled with a humanitarian group. They had gone into a "little bitty" house where a girl sat on the dirt floor. "Santa" handed the girl a small car and her face lit up.
Thacker said the girl carried the toy to the window, where she could see it better in the light, and spun its tiny wheels. She got back on the floor and drove the car up and down her tummy, tracing an imaginary track. She put her finger in its window and Thacker knew she was imagining herself inside the small car, on an adventure far beyond the humble home.
"She got the sweetest smile," Thacker said. And so did "Mrs. Claus," who turned to him and said, "We've got to make toys."
And so more than a dozen years ago Thacker began Tiny Tim's Foundation for Kids to do just that. The nonprofit relies on volunteers to build and paint the cars and toys it distributes to underprivileged children around the world — including hundreds of cars painted by inmates at the Central Utah Correctional Facility and Utah State Prison.
Thacker, 80, estimates volunteers working with Tiny Tim's Toy Factory have produced more than 500,000 toy cars from wood scraps and donated materials. Those toys have traveled to children in places ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Approximately 200 to 300 toys are given each month to children being treated at local medical centers or temporarily staying in homeless shelters.
The Department's participation in the project began about 11 years ago. Thacker said a former deputy warden and her grandson had volunteered at his toy factory in West Jordan. The deputy warden later told Thacker the work was just the sort of thing that would help inmates make good use of their time. That led to a partnership between the Utah Department of Corrections and Thacker's foundation that continues to this day.
At the Central Utah Correctional Facility, about six inmates participate in the volunteer program. The Gunnison prison's Tiny Tim's Toy Factory room operates from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
In June, the inmates churned out 1,100 cars.
A smaller workshop operates at the Utah State Prison.
"We love it," said Phil.
"This is our passion while we're here," added David.
This summer Thacker and his nonprofit were recognized with a "Pioneers of Progress" Award for humanitarian assistance from the Days of '47 Board of Trustees. The awards are given to Utahns who exemplify faith, courage, industry, integrity and sacrifice and whose work benefits current and future generations.
As an honoree, Thacker, his wife and family appeared in the Days of '47 Children's Parade — accompanied by five child-size cars painted and detailed by inmates at CUCF, including a race car and a fire truck complete with a ladder and rope hose.
We're grateful for the opportunity to work with Thacker, who is giving inmates an opportunity to pay it forward!