Hand­made toys a ‘piece of happy’

Vol­un­teer makes presents out of wood for kids in fos­ter care

San Antonio Express-News - - FRONT PAGE - By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje STAFF WRITER

When John Faulter­sack’s wife, An­gelita, be­came gravely ill five years ago, he be­gan cre­at­ing toys out of wood. He de­scribed it as “a form of ther­apy.”

Af­ter his wife of 40-plus years passed away in 2016, his toy-mak­ing con­tin­ued. It brought him com­fort while he grieved and re­minded him that some things in life are more durable.

But the most heart­en­ing as­pect of Faulter­sack’s sim­ple, cheery cre­ations is how they con­sole an­other griev­ing group — chil­dren who’ve been re­moved from their par­ents be­cause of abuse or ne- glect.

About seven years ago, Faulter­sack, 72, be­came a vol­un­teer with Child Ad­vo­cates San An­to­nio, or CASA. The group pairs court-ap­pointed, trained vol­un­teers with chil­dren in the state’s

fos­ter care sys­tem. The adults make sure the chil­dren’s med­i­cal, le­gal and eco­nomic needs are met and pro­vide a con­sis­tent and car­ing pres­ence in their lives. They also take them to fun ac­tiv­i­ties.

Faulter­sack de­cided to take his vol­un­teer work a step fur­ther. He makes 35 or more wooden toys a year that are given to CASA kids at Christ­mas.

“My toys are just a lit­tle piece of happy,” he said.

On a re­cent morn­ing, a bevy of brightly col­ored toys was ar­ranged in a cir­cle on Faulter­sack’s liv­ing room floor. There were stack­ing toys, trains, trucks and cars for younger kids. Cat­a­pults and tid­dly-winks games and Fer­ris wheels. Doll houses and garages and wag­ons.

Faulter­sack, a for­mer farm boy from Wis­con­sin who moved to San An­to­nio five decades ago to work at Lack­land AFB, de­signs the toys, us­ing his long­time ex­pe­ri­ence as an air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tem de­signer. Be­fore that, he was a teacher and ed­u­ca­tional ther­a­pist, work that gave him in­sight into young minds.

He cre­ates his toys in a cramped, 9-by-13-foot me­tal shed in his back­yard. He has to stoop a bit to ac­com­mo­date his 6-foot­tall frame. A shelf holds cans of paint and stain. There’s a band saw and a drill press and var­i­ous san­ders. Wooden boards lean against walls; bas­kets hold wooden blocks.

“I just tinker,” Faulter­sack said while show­ing a wagon still in need of wheels.

He gave his first batch of wooden cre­ations to CASA about four years ago af­ter see­ing the kinds of toys do­nated one Christ­mas. He said they were mostly plas­tic and “kind of tacky.”

Each year, an es­ti­mated 5,000 chil­dren in Bexar County are re­moved from their homes be­cause of sus­pected abuse and ne­glect; about half end up in fos­ter care.

Al­most 1,800 chil­dren re­ceived help from a CASA vol­un­teer this fis­cal year, but some go with­out. A CASA of­fi­cial said about 670 peo­ple be­came CASA vol­un­teers this year — about 300 short of the goal.

Mak­ing things harder, chil­dren in tem­po­rary or per­ma­nent state cus­tody are of­ten moved around to mul­ti­ple places be­cause of con­flicts and other trou­ble in fos­ter homes.

Faulter­sack, as a vol­un­teer, has helped a half-dozen chil­dren through CASA over the years.

“These kids are alone, ripped out of their home at no fault of their own,” he said. “They don’t un­der­stand what’s go­ing on. It’s a cat­a­strophic change.”

Faulter­sack, who re­tired sev­eral years ago, is not there to see a child’s face light up upon get­ting one of his toys. That’s the job of the vol­un­teer. But he hopes the toy is some­thing a child will keep and take with him or her, no mat­ter what hap­pens.

“It’s some­thing that, if the child is trans­ported from one place to an­other, the toy will sur­vive. They’re pretty sturdy,” he said.

Ma­rina Gon­za­les, pres­i­dent and CEO of CASA, said Faulter­sack’s toys send a mes­sage to the chil­dren that they’re wor­thy. It shows them some­one spent con­sid­er­able time and ef­fort be­cause they mat­ter.

“Of­ten these chil­dren are placed in group homes or shel­ters, where there aren’t a lot of re­sources to cel­e­brate the hol­i­days,” she said. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant to pro­vide these kids with a sense of nor­malcy and hol­i­day cheer. They’ve been re­moved from the only home they know.”

Faulter­sack wants to get the word out that CASA is in dire need of vol­un­teers. He tells the story of go­ing to pick up a child at a fos­ter home.

“An­other lit­tle girl clamped onto my leg,” he said. “She said, ‘I want a CASA.’ ”

The young man Faulter­sack has been men­tor­ing for the past five years is about to be­come 18 and will “age out” of the fos­ter care sys­tem. Af­ter that, Faulter­sack will be done vol­un­teer­ing, he said. But he won’t stop mak­ing toys for CASA.

“I’ll keep mak­ing as many as I can,” he said.

“These kids are alone, ripped out of their home at no fault of their own. They don’t un­der­stand what’s go­ing on. It’s a cat­a­strophic change.”

Marvin Pfeif­fer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

John Faulter­sack works on a wooden wagon in his stu­dio. Faulter­sack cre­ates toys for kids who have been re­moved from fam­i­lies.

Pho­tos by Marvin Pfeif­fer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

John Faulter­sack makes 35 or more wooden toys a year. The toys are Christ­mas presents for those at Child Ad­vo­cates San An­to­nio.

Pic­tured are some of the wooden toys made by vol­un­teer John Faulter­sack at his home work­shop.

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