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Dave Sutherlin oversees toy production at VOTI.

Featured Article

Gifts for the Good of Kids

A Newly Expanded Woodshop at Village on the Isle Crafts Wooden Toys for Underprivileged Children

Article by Emily Leinfuss

Photography by Stephanie Snow Photography

Originally published in Venice City Lifestyle

For over 20 years, Dave and Marie Sutherlin, along with a small, dedicated crew of volunteers, have devoted their time and skills to crafting hundreds of wooden toys, including airplanes, cars, boats, critters, and more. These simple toys are then distributed to local and national nonprofits, to be delivered into the hands of underprivileged children. 

Previously, the Sutherlins operated their toy-making woodworking shop from their Nokomis home garage. However, about four years ago, they approached Doug Feller, the CEO of the extraordinary retirement community Village On The Isle (VOTI), with a compelling proposition: to donate their equipment and continue their toy ministry at VOTI.

"It was almost like the stars aligned," says Doug, who noted that VOTI already had a small woodworking shop where residents pursued hobbies like whittling and carving. "We had always discussed expanding," he adds.

After visiting the Sutherlin's home workshop, Doug realized that the donation of equipment would not only significantly expand VOTI's woodworking facilities, but also align with VOTI's purpose as a faith-based social ministry affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  "It was a wonderful thing!” 

With the decision made, planning commenced to repurpose an existing building on the campus. This former skilled nursing facility is now known as the Village Commons, says Cas Azera, a retired master carpenter who is Project Manager for VOTI. 

In 2020, after selecting a general contractor, VOTI began the buildout. Multiple spaces were combined to create a woodshop six times larger than the previous one. Within this expansion, five rooms were designated for specific functions related to toy production, such as the drying room and finishing room, as well as for the residents' woodworking needs.

"We have worked with some great vendor/partners, some of whom donated their time, and others donated materials," Doug adds. "We all came together for this wonderful mission."

Unfortunately, the unexpected occurred when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing plans to be put on hold. It was a challenging time for everyone involved, but the spirit of perseverance prevailed. Today toys are being produced and will be ready for distribution in time for the 2023 holiday season.

And these toys are truly amazing! There are race cars with rolling wheels, a movable dragon, a bird with eggs, a dog that moves, and more. Dave Sutherlin, a former boatbuilder with diverse professional experience, now oversees toy production at VOTI. He emphasizes the importance of using natural wood for the toys. "When the kids receive them, they can paint them if they want," he explains. 

Marie Sutherlin, a retired nurse, explains that the toys are distributed to underprivileged children through local organizations, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, the Sarasota County Sheriff and Police Departments, among many others. "The Venice Police even keep (the toys) in their cars for children who may be present during domestic abuse situations," she says. Worldwide distribution is achieved through the shoebox gift programs of Franklin Graham's International Relief Program, and Samaritan's Purse.

VOTI's woodworking shop is not exclusive to the toy ministry; it is open and welcoming to all residents eager to explore the craft. "We have enough people who love to share their knowledge and skills that anyone can come in and learn how to work with wood," says Woodshop President Oscar Isabel. Newcomers will also receive instruction on the correct and safe usage of equipment, he adds. 

Safety measures have received particular attention, says Cas. The woodshop is equipped with video cameras in all rooms, an emergency phone and pull cords that directly connect to VOTI security, first aid and eye wash stations, smoke detectors, and more. "We have made sure that residents can receive immediate assistance if needed," he says. 

Doug further emphasizes that anyone at VOTI can enter and learn the art of woodworking in a safe and responsible manner. He recalls a resident who diligently crafted unique Christmas ornaments for each grandchild every year, showcasing the remarkable talent and creativity flourishing within the retirement community.

Village on the Isle's woodshop is not simply a workshop; it is a place where dreams come to fruition, talents are nurtured, and a strong sense of community thrives. With the Sutherlin's generous donation, and VOTI's unwavering dedication, it will continue to be a haven for residents, and a boon to underprivileged kids who love toys, for years to come.

The toy ministry aligns with VOTI's purpose as a faith-based social ministry affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 

  • Dave and Marie Sutherlin started the toy-making ministry that's now at VOTI.
  • Cas Azera, Project Manager for VOTI, helped manage the woodshop’s expansion.
  • Oscar Isabel is VOTI's Woodshop President.
  • A wooden plane is one of the toys made for kids.
  • A view of toys and toy-making at VOTI's woodshop.
  • VOTI resident, and woodshop whittler Tony Armagno.
  • VOTI resident Peter Servis is finishing up his own projects.
  • Dave Sutherlin oversees toy production at VOTI.
  • Toys, toys, toys!
  • The wheels for the race cars are ready to roll.
  • VOTI CEO Doug Feller calls the toy ministry "A wonderful thing."
  • Children in Haiti painting their new wooden toys.

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