Orange Santa’s Sustainable Toymakers

Wood trains built in UT Carpenter Shop

Paintbrush in hand, Marina Atkinson stands by a plastic-draped worktable piled with gallons of fire-engine red and chalky mint green latex meant for dozens of toy wooden cradles tipped at different angles. Marina, a project specialist supervisor with two decades on the clock at the University of Texas at Austin, has her thick black hair swept back from her face and her trim turtleneck protected by enormous periwinkle coveralls.

Marina is spending her lunch hour decorating toys built on site in UT’s cavernous Carpenter Shop. The cradle that she decorates with each brush stroke is one of about 60 wooden toys that will be donated to the university’s signature holiday event for families in need, Orange Santa.

Toy making in Orange Santa’s Workshop requires many elves. All fall, UT employees like Marina have volunteered to paint the classic toys created by carpenters.  On this particular November day, Marina is joined by retired cabinet maker Kenny Rhinehart, who returns each year to paint beautifully detailed, wheeled trains, and project manager Hiro Horikoshi, who popped over from his office with three student interns from the University Leadership Network.

“When I noticed these three in the office today, I decided to come over to paint for 40 minutes or so,” says Horikoshi. “I try to help out an hour or two every year. It is fun for us millennials since we didn’t have wooden toys – just video games.”

Hiro Horikoshi and Marina Atkinson spend their lunch hour painting cradles   Credit: Kristin Phillips

Orange Santa Origins

University of Texas Police Department officer George Glaeser, now retired, was investigating a stolen automobile complaint about 30 years ago when he had a momentous impulse.  On returning the car—completely trashed and in need of extensive repair—the owner, a married graduate student, took it all in and said, “Well, there goes my kid’s Christmas.” Glaeser then purchased toys with his own money and returned on Christmas morning with a haul for those children.

Every year since, Glaeser and UTPD colleagues have returned to this housing complex with presents for families, and the seed for Orange Santa began germinating.

Orange Santa became a formal program in 1994 as one of President Robert Berdahl’s initiatives to foster more of a family feeling on campus. Each year, a temporary shop is set up and supplied with enough toys for parents—all affiliated with UT, but with few resources—to pick two toys per child. As with the toymakers in the Carpenter Shop, the entire program runs on spirited volunteers: custodial staff haul away extra boxes to recycling, Surplus Property stores toys purchased at wholesale rates in the summer, and movers help get the toys to the right spot.

This year, about 400 volunteer students, faculty, and staff operated the shop for four days. Even the women’s rowing team got involved and spent a day wrapping gifts. As a result of all of the volunteer efforts, about 900 deserving children will have special toys under the tree. That is a lot of toys, and the hand-crafted wooden cars, cradles and trains are particularly popular.

“The wooden toys can only be found in the Orange Santa store and are only for the UT family,” says Susan Threadgill, associate director of production in the University Development Office. “This year, Armando and his crew made many unique gifts, including checker boards with the trademarked longhorn logo, fabulous trains, and those colorful cradles that always move off the shelves.”

Master carpenter and shop supervisor Armando Blanco on a bench made from wood harvested on campus. Credit: McLendon Photography

The Toymakers

When supervisor Armando Blanco, a veteran of a decade at UT as well as of the Air Force who sports a trim white goatee, shows visitors around the Carpenter Shop, he pinballs between sleek shelving units waiting for varnish, a special podium built for student body president Alejandrina Guzman, and natural benches made from wood milled from campus trees. It is clear that he enjoys his work and is proud of what the shop produces.

“My guys, they are really good,” says Blanco, walking over to a display of wooden toys under an ‘Orange Santa’ sign that would bring wonder to any preschooler. Tacked to the wall is a yellow and black truck loaded with mini logs, a red racing car, and even a mobile from which dangles a lime-colored horse and a burnt orange longhorn. “We’ve made so many different toys, but we now get guidance on what the Orange Santa shop needs. It’s a good cause—for the kids.”

Creating toys for children is a farily new, special development in the shop. About eight years ago, caprenters thought of a sustainable way to reuse the piles of scrap wood created each day by making poduims and shelves: make wooden toys for children. Now, carpenters stack plywood and 2x4s all year so that the material can have a new life as a cradle or train.

“We build the toys in phases—a bit in the morning, a bit in the afternoon—when we have time,” says carpenter Patrick Fisher. “The painting is up to each individual who comes to help out. There is even a group that crochets little blankets for the cradles.”

The Finished Products

On December 7, Blanco and a fellow carpenter donned their burnt orange Santa hats to make a special delivery of cradles, trains, cars and checkerboards to the Orange Santa Shop. Dozens of staff members had helped build and decorate each toy.

“Armando and his team are so special to us,” says Threadgill. “They arrived at our office calling, ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ as they came in the door.”


Author: Kristin Elise Phillips, Communications Coordinator, Office of Sustainability