Handcrafting trains, doll cradles, vehicles, jewelry boxes, pull toys and more is the faithful work of the Happy Joes, a carpentry ministry started by men from Mount Morris Holden Lutheran Church in Wautoma, Wis.

The 8-year-old ministry builds toys to be donated to the Waushara County Community Christmas Project, which provides food and presents at Christmastime to families with low income. A rural county, Waushara has approximately 24,000 people. Last year, more than 1,300 children ages 12 and younger were on the list to receive a present through the Christmas project.

The idea for the Happy Joes came when a former pastor of Mount Morris Holden, Todd Murken, called on the congregation to form small groups for Bible study and fellowship. Parishioner Tom Stepanek shared the idea of building toys since the congregation had long supported the county’s Christmas project.

“It was obvious at the first organizational meeting that God was leading us forward,” Stepanek said. “We had no plan as how to proceed with any aspect of this new idea. We had a list of names and that was it. That is where God took over.”

At their first gathering, people showed up with wooden toys that the group could use as patterns. Others brought wood. After the first year of production, which yielded 75 toys, supplies of wood poured in. For the next couple of years, the men crafted about 300 toys annually. They are making 500 now, with support from their congregation and the wider community.

“We have so much lumber right now that we have to store it in four different locations,” Stepanek said.

The local sawmill provided a stack of pine lumber, the lumberyard donated a truckload of lumber, and congregants who removed trees from their yards paid to have them cut into boards for the Happy Joes.

“We focus our efforts on the joy of a child who is handed one of our toys. For that moment in time, we have changed the life of that one child. Is that not what God calls us to do?”

One Saturday morning, Stepanek said he discovered a kitchen garbage bag sitting on his front step. It contained thousands of wooden wheels in different sizes and styles. The Happy Joes have also received cash donations to purchase supplies.

The Happy Joes ministry derives its name from Joseph, a carpenter and the father of Jesus. The group, which meets every Wednesday for two hours, builds 14 to 17 types of toys and makes 35 to 40 of each. While its core group ranges from four to seven men, the ministry extends well beyond this.

Others make quilts and blankets for use in the doll cradles, and one parishioner sews and donates stuffed animals for the cradles and high chairs. Another member donates new books and matching stuffed animals for the reading stools. Some have loaned trucks and trailers to haul lumber.

“We take the saying, ‘God’s work. Our hands.’ very seriously,” Stepanek said. “We focus our efforts on the joy of a child who is handed one of our toys. For that moment in time, we have changed the life of that one child. Is that not what God calls us to do?”

Barb Girod, pastor of Mount Morris Holden, said the Happy Joes is a Spirit-driven, lay-driven ministry and “quite an incredible one at that.”

The Happy Joes serve as the hands and heart of God and touch the lives of hundreds of children and their families each year, Girod said. “As they gather, they support and encourage one another in their faith and daily lives,” she added.

For the past couple of years, the confirmation class has spent an evening in the Happy Joes workshop, working side-by-side with group members to make toys and learn about the ministry.

“Here they can see that serving God and the church includes what we do outside the walls of the church,” Girod said. “They see how sharing our gifts and working together can make a difference in the lives of others.”

Dale Simonson, a longtime member of the Happy Joes, said, “There is nothing greater than, at Christmastime, watching your kids or grandkids open up presents. The same is true with the … Christmas project. I remember one particular little girl held on so tight to her cradle and doll. The smile on her face was priceless.”

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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