Don Espeland: Toying with reitirement

Grand Junction resident Don Espeland photographed in his workshop at his Mesa Crest home in early February.

Don Espeland is an active Kiwanis member, and works with servicepeople bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.


Many view retirement as a time to learn a new job, find a hobby or just relax.

Don Espeland is toying with his retirement years.

And he takes it seriously.

Toying is making toys that go around the world to places where toys are almost unknown, to places where toys are a welcome relief from treatments for illnesses such as cancer.

Espeland’s toy work is a project of the Kiwanis Golden K Club of Grand Junction, and the works of club members have girdled the earth.

Missionaries have taken the club’s toys and returned with photos of them being distributed in Africa.

“In most cases that’s the very first toy these kids have ever received,” Espeland said, pointing to a photo of a boy holding one of the wooden airplanes carved by club members in Grand Junction.

The output of Espeland and the club isn’t limited to airplanes, trucks and cars. They carve magic wands and make cribs for dolls, which come with dolls and blankets.

Lois Kelleher works on the dolls and handmade blankets while the men work on the cribs and other handmade pieces, Espeland said.

How the club’s toys get out of Grand Junction and to far-flung lands is a multi-faceted tale, Espeland said.

Many toys were sent from Grand Junction to Fort Carson, where they were taken by soldiers to Iraq. Nowadays, the destination is Afghanistan, he said.

Toys often are stuffed into soldiers’ backpacks so they can be retrieved at a moment’s notice when soldiers need to respond immediately to local needs, such as children who need to be reassured, to say nothing of their parents.

A demonstration of goodwill with a toy can go a long way, Espeland said.

Through the club’s toy project, “We feel we’re helping with the war effort,” he said.

Missionaries also pack the toys away with their other supplies, such as medicine, he said.

As for the toy-making business itself, elves take less care than Espeland and the club members.

They use ash wood, generally the remains of door-making, for their creations.

Edges are beveled off, corners rounded and axles glued to the bodies of the toy trucks and cars.

The toymakers drill all the way through when making windows for their toy vehicles so there are no sharp edges, he said.

“These toys are very, very safe,” Espeland said.

The only real problem the club has dealt with was the experimental efforts of patients at Children’s Hospital in Aurora who wanted to see if their toy airplanes would fly, Espeland said.

Now they get cars and cribs and everything else the club puts together. Except airplanes.

The hospital also prefers toys that haven’t been varnished or given coats of mineral oil. That allows patients to paint their toys as they see fit, a part of their therapy, he said.

The origins of the Golden K Club’s project reach back to a book Espeland read, “The Happy Factory,” about the owner of a Cedar City wood business who made toys with scrap wood.

“I thought, why couldn’t we do this locally?” Espeland said. “We’ve got talent right here in the club.”

The Golden K Club, so named for retired Kiwanians, took it on and it attracts efforts from members and nonmembers alike, Espeland said.

Kiwanis Club member Mike Kelley, for instance, prints out the stickers that go on every toy sent out, telling the eventual user the toy came from Grand Junction.

At last count, which was in September, Espeland and the Golden K craftsmen over the life of the project that began in 2006 have made and distributed about 6,000 toys and several furniture pieces, such as Adirondack chairs and table-and-chair sets, worth an estimated $71,000.

Espeland’s garage, like many others who are part of the project, houses several saws and other woodcutting, sanding and coating equipment.

When the sun shines, Espeland works a few times a week with a different kind of wood on the fairways of Adobe Creek Golf Course and sometimes at Chipeta Golf Course on Orchard Mesa.

His work on the K Club toys, though, is always captivating, he said. “It’s a labor of love.”

Espeland, 78, is a former investigator for the Labor Department, where he monitored employer and union compliance with federal law. He also investigated compliance with veterans re-employment laws.


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