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Christopher Smith, left, and Jermaine Hunt, inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution-Beckley, measure trim for a doll house made for Mac’s Toy Fund.

Some of the most iconic Christmas toys to be handed out at the Mac’s Toy Fund distribution party, rocking horses and doll houses, are hand-fashioned in the most unlikely of places — inside the Federal Correction Institution-Beckley.

For the sixth consecutive year, the vocational facility at the medium-security prison has become one of Santa’s workshops where inmates build character by constructing toys for some of the more than 4,000 children to be served by Mac’s Toy Fund.

Bonita Bowman, director of education for the facility, explained that FCI tries to involve as many individuals as possible who have a high school diplomas or equivalent in their vocation programs.

“We are pleased to have an opportunity to participate in such a worthy community project. The project allows us to expand the vocational training education program beyond the classroom and the prison walls,” she said.

The prisoners who work on the toys do so on a voluntary basis.

Under the supervision of a vocational training instructor, the inmates heighten their carpentry and life skills while making toys. Bowman noted that each year the inmates look forward to making toys and the 25 to 30 prisoners who participate in the vocational carpentry program have designed two new toys for 2010, a rocking duck and a clip-clop horse. The clip-clop horse is a rocking horse with legs that move independently, producing a trotting sound.

For inmate Jermaine Hunt of Florence, S.C., fashioning toys for Mac’s reminds him of his two children. “I think about them all the time while I work. I think of the things I want to make them when I get out.”

Hunt said helping others gives him a sense of pride and makes him feel appreciated. “This is a good project and a good cause; it makes you feel good inside. It’s about doing something good instead of wasting your time.”

Christopher Smith Jr. of Roanoke, Va., also notes the positive effect their work will have on the community.

“I know what it is like to be a kid, growing up with nothing, and it is good to know that you’re putting a smile on children’s faces. It’s good to help kids that are less fortunate and to give back to the community.”

Like many of the Mac’s Toy Fund volunteers “on the outside,” both men acknowledged that their service, while helping area families through the holidays, also has a profound effect on them. Smith called the project “therapeutic,” but also recognized the skills he is developing.

“I know that job opportunities for a convicted felon are very low. Going through this program will give me a job reference when I get out. Building the toys is a different level of difficulty that we don’t get on other things, making detailed toys that move,” he added.

As Hunt and Smith showed The Register-Herald around the facility, it was evident they were eager to show off the toys they have been working on and describe the process. Smith even joked that he has personally tried out (sat on) the rocking horses and picnic tables as the quality control tester.

And while Smith added that the Mac’s Toy Fund project “makes the time pass,” both men seemed a little sad to see their North Pole workshop close to go back to constructing practical bookshelves, printer cabinets and performing general maintenance at the facility.

This year the inmates have made around 270 toys, including picnic tables, doll houses, clip-clop horses, checker boards and a variety of rocking toys. In all, 1 1/2 tractor-trailer loads of toys will be brought to the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center for next Saturday’s distribution party.

Mac’s Toy Fund provides wood and supplies for the toys. The FCI education staff assisted the vocational instructor and Unicor staff will assist with packaging and transporting of the toys.

— E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com

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