Danville seniors fabricate toys to cheer children in the hospital

A new program at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living is giving a fresh twist to the old notion of tzedakah.

Instead of young people coming to the aid of the elderly and infirm, a group of seniors at the Danville home is pitching in to help the young.

The residents are producing colorful stuffed hearts and toy blocks to distribute soon to children hospitalized at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

"It's very important for people of all ages to be able to give to their community," explained Betty Rothaus, art director of the home.

The effort is considerable for some participants, Rothaus said, because of problems with arthritis and eyesight. But knowing that their work will benefit needy children has proven to be a strong motivating factor.

"Their real impetus is to give to the children," she added. "They're clearly waiting for that."

Since the Tuesday afternoon program started in April, a core group of some 10 men and women has produced about two dozen hearts and 10 sets of blocks, said Dorothy Brill, an 81-year-old Rossmoor resident who supervises the class with her husband, Leon, who is 84.

The Brills decided to pitch in and run the class after a friend mentioned that Leon Brill, a retired electrician, enjoyed woodworking and might be able to cut out the block shapes at a woodshop that he uses.

Dorothy Brill, an amateur artist, then volunteered to help with the sewing side of the program. Knowing that the program is creating meaningful products while giving participants a sense of satisfaction, also provides her with fulfillment. "We're very happy to be able to do it," she said.

Discussing the participants, Brill described them as "very sweet." "They seem to be very happy to come."

To kick off each class, Leon Brill often brings in jokes he finds on the Internet to share with attendees. They're "all clean," Dorothy Brill emphasized.

The class has quickly become a social event, with participants swapping stories and experiences. "It's a great group activity," said Rothaus. "It's kind of like an old-fashioned quilting bee."

While the "Give of Your Heart" class may shatter stereotypical views of the elderly traditionally being on the receiving end of helping hands, it has not broken the gender line of what constitutes women's and men's work.

Women have gravitated toward the heart-making, where they design, stuff and sew the stuffed toys. Male participants, on the other hand, are sanding and oiling the sets of toy blocks.

One of the participants, 82-year-old Ed Ginsburg, moved into the home recently with his wife, Molly, who has Alzheimer's disease. He quickly started attending the weekly program. "I took woodworking in high school," he explained. "Whatever they need me for, I like to volunteer."

Geraldine Gluckman, 92, was looking for something to do when she moved into the home this summer and decided to sign up for the class. "I'm very glad to do volunteer work where I can," she said.

Participant Belle Cohen, 81, said that "it's just that I like sewing."

Rothaus thinks the program will grow in both popularity and the variety of projects generated. In the future, the group may want to distribute gifts to children in homeless shelters as well as at local hospitals.

"We wanted to start out with just a basic idea," she said. "As the program grows, the projects grow and we will have plenty of room for creativity."

Before distributing the first finished products to children at the hospital, she wants to put some samples on display at a show in October at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek.