The VVA Veteran® Online

Membership Notes, July/August 2015

Deborah Williams

Toy Shop Story


Deep within the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola a group of concerned inmates formed The Toy Shop. That, in and of itself, is quite an accomplishment, considering that it was done within the nation’s largest maximum security institution.

It was a long road that began around 1990 in the back of the main prison gym. During the Thanksgiving holidays a group of inmates borrowed tools from other inmates in the hobby shop. Broomsticks, pieces of wood, and partial cans of paint migrated from trashcans to become cars, trucks, and stick ponies.

In 1995 Warden Billy Travis became extremely interested in The Toy Shop and supported our bid to become an inmate organization. That same year, Warden Burl Cain gave us the green light to start the new project. Eight months later, on August 17, 1996, we officially became “The Toy Shop.”

True to their word, Wardens Travis and Cain found us a place to work during our time off from regular job assignments. On September 27, 1996, our articles of incorporation were approved by Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, and we became “The Toy Shop, Inc.,” a nonprofit corporation registered in the state of Louisiana.

Success at last? Hardly. Although we were an organization and had a place to work, we had little to work with. Our hammers were made from the shaft of an old blower; their handles were made from a broken sewer rod. The trashcans and the dump became our hardware store. Broken drills, saws, and other tools were found, repaired, and put into service. The maintenance crews and carpenter crews were put on the lookout for anything—be it a broken pair of pliers or a small piece of lumber.

The men who emptied the dormitory trashcans were asked to collect the old brooms and mops. The men who picked up the trash from the back of the kitchen were on the lookout for old tables for us to work on and plastic buckets to be used to make wheel bushings. The lawnmower repair shop saved their old inner tubes so we could make frog and duck feet. The strings from defective mops, discarded by the mattress factory, became pull strings for wooden dogs and rabbits. Wheels from old lawnmowers became the wheels for riding toys. Weed-eater strings became grasshopper antennae; old sponges became paintbrushes. Then, by hard-worked magic, ducks and dogs and grasshoppers and stick ponies and tanks and helicopters and planes and boats and trains and rabbits and tractors and 18-wheelers were ready to be placed in cardboard boxes for delivery to their new owners.

Although far from the North Pole, Angola’s toy shop revs into high gear before Christmas. The very first year we made two hundred wooden toys. Within a couple of years production soared to twenty-five hundred. And last year more than five thousand wooden toys were handmade at The Toy Shop and placed in the hands of Louisiana’s poorest children. In fact, The Toy Shop has become the largest single provider of toys for underprivileged children in Louisiana.

Success encourages new challenges. We have expanded into refurbishing old bicycles. The bicycles are collected and donated by local charities, churches, and sheriffs’ offices. From the undamaged parts, new bicycles are cobbled together. Last year nearly a thousand bicycles were refurbished and found their way to area children.

Inmates who work at The Toy Shop do so only after they get off from their regular jobs and complete their regular assignments. The Toy Shop is their second job. Their pay: the smile on a child’s face.

Sheriffs’ offices, veterans organizations, and local churches work with The Toy Shop to distribute these toys and bikes throughout the state.

Tom Joyner, a longtime member of Incarcerated Chapter 689, runs Angola’s Toy Shop. He also chairs the chapter’s POW/MIA Affairs Committee. Joyner served with the 5th Special Forces Group based in Da Nang.

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