There are examples of compassion all around us, but some are more obvious than others. And while extenuating circumstances such as war and depravation don’t seem likely places to find charity, one couple in Cedar City, Utah, has found a way to serve and love amidst tragedy and trials. They call it The Happy Factory.
The Happy Factory has donated more than 1,500,000 wooden toys to children all around the world since its inception in 1995. Most of these toys find their way to hospitals where children suffer from disease and injury, but more recently they have been finding their way to children in local communities in Iraq and Afghanistan with the help of U.S. military members.
The Happy Factory started with the desire of a single married couple, Charles and Donna Cooley, to make handmade wooden toys to give to local children in distress. It has now evolved into an all-volunteer production team with an ever-increasing reach that connects with children in 180 countries around the world.
Image of Charles and Donna Coolidge taken by Ken Bozo in January 1996. Used with permission.
Their impact on the lives of these children is profound. Consider this email to a Happy Factory volunteer in 2015:
“Hi, Aunt Pat and Uncle Bob…Please reassure the folks that make the toys at the Happy Factory that they make a huge, huge, difference in the comfort of Iraqi children. We recently heard from our nephew who is serving in Iraq, and he shared a very touching story.
"The last patrol they were on they investigated a safe house used by the enemy. It was destroyed by the enemy before they left. The insurgents left behind a mother and her young son in the rubble, both with terrible wounds. Our nephew Bill said that the little boy had the majority of his cheek and jaw missing. He said what was eerie was that the child never cried but just looked terrified. So, while they waited for the medics, Bill gave this little boy the last toy he had with him. He said for as much as this suffering child could move his face, Bill knew he was smiling. He kept hugging Bill and wouldn’t let him go, even when the medics arrived. Bill said the little fellow just clutched the toy to his chest. Other than the tattered clothes on his back, Bill was pretty sure that this was the only possession this child had. So, Bill passes on a thousand thank yous to the ‘toy people.’"
This is one of innumerable emails and thank-you letters received by volunteers at the Happy Factory that shows how a single toy can make a huge difference in the life of a child in pain or terror.
Perhaps most incredible of all is that not a single Happy Factory worker receives any compensation whatsoever. “The Happy Factory is a 501(c)(3) qualifying non-profit organization whose sole mission is to give the children of the world a small, high-quality, wooden toy, so every child has at least one toy. We are made up of volunteers, have no payroll, and none of the Board of Directors are paid, so 100% of every dollar donated is used in the production of our toys,” Donna shares.
Latter-day Saints Charles and Donna Cooley retired from Southern Utah University (SUU) in 1995, having spent their careers working with young people. Donna was the school’s head cashier for most of those years. Her husband, “Charlie,” ran the university’s sports and cultural arena—the 5,400-seat Centrum. When they retired, Charles found pleasure in creating small animal cutouts, which Donna then hand-painted. Supply quickly exceeded demand in their own family, and soon Charles asked if he could bring several hundred extra toys along when Donna visited the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, adding to a history of service at Primary Children’s with “pennies by the inch” campaigns and handmade blankets from the Relief Society. The toys were a huge hit with the small patients who suffered from cancer, burns, and other maladies that required extensive hospitalization. “We got more hugs there than we did at a family reunion,” said Charles. That inspired him to make more toys and has led to monthly deliveries of more than 400 toys since that first excursion in 1995.
While cutting out toys early one morning, Charles found himself thinking about the smiles of the children that received the toys. Those images inspired him. “The Happy Factory,” he thought. “We are a Happy Factory.” And that’s how the project got its name.
With a growing appreciation for the profound impact their toys had in children’s lives, Charles started creating small cars and trucks that moved. The “flapper” was the most popular, and the kids loved them. Donna continued to paint as fast as she could as even more requests came their way. Then on one of their trips to Salt Lake City, they stopped into the Shriner’s Children Hospital with a box of toys. When they talked with hospital administrators, they learned that Shriner’s already had access to commercially produced toys. What the hospital needed was specialty wood items to help the children with bone, muscle, and joint problems. “We had unique needs and I was always looking for resources,” says Lisa Carter, a physical therapist at Shriner’s. “When I called Charles and asked if he could make us wedge boards that assist children to stretch and strengthen tight or weak muscles, he said ‘Sure, just send us the plans.’” These unique items included a transfer board that allowed a child with muscular dystrophy to be moved from his wheelchair to his bed without his mother having to physically lift him. It provided a wooden tray/easel combination that allowed a 16-year-old girl confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy and spastic paralysis to write without the pain of bending forward. The Happy Factory quickly became the source of wooden items that were either too expensive commercially or simply unavailable.
The Happy Factory project went worldwide when the Cooleys donated some toys to LDS Humanitarian Services, which distributes aid as part of relief efforts following natural disasters. The response to the toys was always the same—children loved them and found great solace in having a possession that was uniquely theirs.
In time, word got out and both neighbors and strangers offered to help. The small two-person operation started to broaden its reach. And somehow, it seemed that resources became available just when they needed. For example, in early 1999, Charles met David Grant, the president of the Cedar City-based Metalcraft Technologies that manufactures custom sheet work for the aerospace industry. After touring the tiny shed where Charles and two other workers could cut out toys, David went to his board of directors. In addition to a $5,000 donation, they offered to give the Happy Factory space in their large manufacturing building. The Cooleys were overwhelmed. Metalcraft refitted an entire section with the appropriate wiring and exhaust systems so that the operation could expand.
After the expansion, it seemed that everyone wanted the toys. Hundreds of people, from high school students to long-retired seniors, wanted to volunteer. Soon, the Happy Factory was sending wooden toys to distressed children in places from hospitals and family shelters to medical clinics, orphanages, and natural disaster areas.
Someone once told Charles about that, “One toy may be only a drop in the bucket of the world’s needs, but it’s a big drop for the child who gets it.” Donna says that this simple phrase changed the way they thought about their project and inspired them to make it as big as they could. It changed what they did from a hobby into a full-time labor of love and led to their motto, “We may not be able to make a toy for every child in the world who needs one, but we’re going to try.”
Toys in the War Zone
When The Happy Factory wanted to start delivering toys to children in Iraq and Afghanistan, it fell to the members of the military serving there to hand-deliver each toy. Often family members pick up the toys and send them to their soldier in the field for redistribution. “It’s hard to say how many toys have found their way to Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Donna. “But we know that many have, and that they make a real difference to the children who receive them. We love to receive emails and letters telling us about those experiences.”
Perhaps the most touching story of all came in the form of a phone call from a young man serving in Iraq. It was shared by volunteer Fred Anderson and shows how the simple wooden toys from Utah have actually saved the lives of U.S. Servicemen in Iraq in addition to comforting children. Here is how Fred related the story:
I received a phone call from my grandson who is serving in Iraq. He said that shortly after they left their base a few days earlier they encountered a little girl sitting in the middle of the road. She wouldn’t move at our approach, so we got out to talk to her. She pointed to a spot in the road where the dirt had been disturbed. When we checked it out we found that a landmine had been placed there. This allowed us to remove it safely before it hurt anyone. It turns out that the little girl had watched some insurgents place it there the night before and she knew that it was intended to hurt Americans. While she was talking with us she was holding a Happy Factory toy tightly in her hands. She said that the Americans had given her the toy and so she liked the Americans and didn’t want them to get hurt. That’s why she was sitting in the middle of the road to warn us. . . . It was a toy just like the ones you make, Grandpa.”
Charles Cooley: 1930 - 2011
“There many things that I cannot do. There are many things that I do not know. But there is one thing that I can do. I can serve another. And I’m so grateful that I can serve some of His little ones. I don’t need any praise, notoriety, or pay because the satisfaction, blessings, and feelings that I receive are so great that I need nothing else.” - Charles Cooley
From 1995 until his death in 2011, Charles Cooley was a driving force behind the good work of The Happy Factory. In 2017, his wife, Donna, continues to spend nearly every day working in behalf of the cause they started 20 years earlier. Today the factory operates under the direction of Douglas Carr, a retired engineer who spent his working career designing wind tunnels. The factory now produces more than 4,000 toys per week, uses hundreds of volunteers from the local university, retired people (some of whom come in every single day), and anyone who can spare a little time to brighten the world one day at a time. They produce each toy at a cost of approximately 50 cents each, with much of the wood being donated by local cabinet shops. The Happy Factory relies on cash contributions to purchase the finished materials like toy car axles, as well as to purchase the manufacturing equipment. Join the effort by visiting www.happyfactory.org.
Lead image and all other images unless otherwise indicted from the Happy Factory website
- Live interviews with Donna Cooley (co-founder) and Douglas J. Carr (volunteer General Manager and Trustee) of the Happy Factory. 896 North 2175 West Circle, Cedar City, UT 84721. 435-586-8352. November and December 2015.
- The Happy Factory. Mack Chrysler. KMC Publishing Company, Salt Lake City. 2005
- The Happy Factory website. <https://www.happyfactory.org/homepage> extracted December 3, 2015.
Compassionate Soldier illuminates fascinating yet largely unknown stories of men and women whose humanity led them to perform courageous acts of mercy and compassion amid the chaos and carnage of war. Arranged by war from the American Revolution to the Iraq War and global in perspective, it features extraordinary stories of grace under fire from valiant soldiers and noncombatants who rose above the inhumanity of lethal conflict and chose compassion, even knowing their actions could put their lives and liberty at risk.
Included are the stories of Patrick Ferguson, a British officer during the American Revolution who had the chance to kill George Washington but refused to shoot a man in the back; Richard Kirkland, a Confederate soldier during the Civil War who took water to wounded Union soldiers during the battle of Fredericksburg; and Oswald Boelcke, a German WWI flying ace who was one of the most influential tacticians of early air combat and was known for making sure the airmen he shot down made it to the ground alive.
These and other inspirational stories illustrate that even in the midst of the unspeakable horrors of war, acts of kindness, mercy, compassion, and humanity can prevail and, in doing so, expand our conventional thinking of honor and battlefield glory.