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'Something new to call their own’

Posted 7 a.m. Monday, Nov. 8, 2021

Each house is covered in blackboard paint, allowing children to decorate them and exercise their imagination.

UW-La Crosse faculty, staff create handmade toys for Afghan child evacuees

Child evacuees from Afghanistan residing in Fort McCoy will have new toys to play with thanks to the handiwork of UW-La Crosse staff and faculty members.

Scott Cooper, professor in the Biology Department, Kurt Grunwald, laboratory manager in the Biology Department, and Mark Sandheinrich, dean of the College of Science and Health, used their woodworking skills to create about 200 toy houses.

The houses are covered in blackboard paint, allowing children to decorate them with windows, doors and anything else that enters their imagination. 

This week, Catholic Charities of La Crosse delivered the toy haul to Fort McCoy.

“I don’t know how to explain it. There’s just something about having a new toy,” Grunwald says. Often, donated toys “are used, and not very gently used. We thought it would be nice if kids could have something new to call their own.”

Scott Cooper, a professor of biology at UWL, delivers handmade toy houses to Catholic Charities of La Crosse. The toys are being donated to child evacuees from Afghanistan staying at Fort McCoy.

This has become a longstanding tradition for Cooper and Grunwald, who have been making and donating toys, usually to the Salvation Army or the Family & Children’s Center of La Crosse, for more than two decades.

Cooper and Grunwald both grew up with an interest in woodworking. About 20 years ago, they were volunteering at a Thanksgiving food drive through the Salvation Army when they noticed that many children only had access to secondhand toys.

Looking back on that day, Grunwald remembers one boy who wanted to test out a refurbished bicycle.

“This kid wiped out on the concrete, bonked his head. But he didn’t cry, because he wanted the bike so badly and didn’t want to make a scene,” Grunwald says. “I thought, ‘This is probably the only newish thing this kid could get all year, and he didn’t want to ruin it.’ That pulled at my heart.”

Their first year in the workshop, Cooper and Grunwald made 50 wooden grasshoppers. 

The next year, they made 50 dump trucks.

The year after that, 50 tugboats.

To date, they have made and donated more than 1,000 toys. Their operation has grown as well, with Sandheinrich, senior lecturer of biology Renee Redman and others joining the cause.

With the recent arrival of 13,000 Afghan evacuees — roughly half of whom are children — at Fort McCoy, the group knew they could make a difference.

“We know that kids appreciate new and handmade toys,” Cooper explains. ”They like something more earthy compared to plastic. And since most toys today are plastic, they probably don’t have many of those.”

Redman, who calls herself the “accessorizing elf” in this operation, puts the finishing touches on the toys — whether that means buying dolls to go with wooden cradles, or buying chalk so the children can customize the wooden houses.

“A lot of care was put into these toys,” Redman notes. “They won’t just break because your sibling took it and dropped it. They’re the kinds of toys that will last, that an older child could maybe pass on to their younger sibling someday.”

The group insists their work for the year is not done. They also plan to make their annual donation to the Family & Children’s Center around the holidays.

“We’ll definitely be making more toys,” Cooper says. “It’s something we plan to keep doing.”

Additional efforts to help Afghan evacuees

This is the latest example of UWL’s efforts to help the community welcome Afghan evacuees to the Coulee Region.

In early October, the university completed a toy drive that collected more than 400 toys for children at Fort McCoy. 

Along with collecting toys, UWL has partnered with Viterbo University and Western Technical College to offer educational programming about Afghan people and culture. 

The third event in this series, “Voices of Uprising: Refugees and the 20-year Conflict in Afghanistan,” will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9, in room 1309 of UWL’s Centennial Hall.

For more information about the event, visit support.


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