Wolastoqew carpentry training program retrofits toys for N.S. kids with disabilities

A carpenter training program partnered with the Makers Making Change initiative to ensure kids with disabilities at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax have toys they can play with.

The toys are retrofitted for easier accessibility so kids with mobility issues can still interact with them

Kendal Solomon, left, and Brent Sacobie are part of a 40-week carpentry training program in New Brunswick. The Wolastoqew men are retrofitting toys to be more accessible for kids with disabilities at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

This week, Wolastoqew carpenters-in-training in New Brunswick began retrofitting 52 toys for kids with disabilities at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. The trainees are adding external accessible sensors to the toys so people with mobility issues can still have fun.

The retrofitting includes rewiring and soldering items like the yellow Boppin' Beaver to include an external padded switch that triggers the toy's animation and sound.

Ethan Paul, one of the trainees, says they're happy to help.

'Nothing in the world beats seeing a kid smile and laugh and it means the world to make another kid happy,' said Ethan Paul from Welamukotuk First Nation, one of the 15 carpenters-in-training. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

"Nothing in the world beats seeing a kid smile and laugh, and it means the world to make another kid happy," said Paul, 21.

He said he knows how important it is for kids to play and interact, so he's grateful to be part of the solution. Paul has a one-and-a-half-year-old son himself, so he said it was important for him to be involved.

Training on reserve

The carpenters-in-training are part of a 40-week apprenticeship program through the Carpenters and Millwrights College of New Brunswick, and the training takes place in Pilick First Nation, about 15 kilometres west of Fredericton.

The program began in February and is part of the Workplace Essential Skills program in New Brunswick. Once they finish the course, the 15 participants can write their block one carpenters exam. 

Paul is one of two carpenters-in-training from Welamukotuk First Nation, about 39 km southeast of Pilick; the other 13 participants are allowed to train and learn in their communities.

A group of 12 carpenters-in-training took part in retrofitting toys for kids at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. The trainees raised $2,670 to pay for the toys and help with the cost of the adaptive switches they're adding to them for accessibility. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

Lloyd Dutcher, one of the carpentry instructors, says it's a great group of guys. He said when Makers Making Change, an organization that partners with industry to develop accessible technology for people with disabilities, first approached the woodworkers, MMC just wanted help retrofitting the toys.

But the carpenters-in-training wanted to do more than just fix up the toys — they raised $2,670 to pay for the toys and help pay for the adaptive switches, which are $40 a unit. 

"That's what these guys are like — they wanted to help out," said Dutcher. 

'We're happy and proud'

The group built three picnic tables for a community raffle to help raise the funds for the toys. They had already built garden boxes for elders and helped construct walkways and ramps.

Brent Sacobie, 31, says trainees are always willing to help their community.

He says he likes carpentry work because he gets to point out the stuff he worked on to other people and takes pride in it. Sacobie also says working with his hands helps keep him grounded.

He was grateful to help kids at the IWK Health Centre because members of his family have needed care there before. 

"We're happy and proud to be a part of it — it's huge to alter these toys for the kids," said Sacobie. 

Alex Atwin says he loves working with his hands and hopes after the completion of the carpentry program he can build things for his home community, Pilick First Nation. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

Alex Atwin, another community member, hopes the carpentry program grows to other reserves. He's looking forward to taking what he has learned and helping to build even bigger things in Pilick First Nation. 

"I love giving back to my community," said Atwin. 

The 40-week course is set to wrap up in December. As for the toys, once they're all retrofitted, kids and their families at the IWK Health Centre will get a toy as well as a card with a group picture of the men who worked on the toys. 


Oscar Baker III is a Black and Mi’kmaw reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation. He is the Atlantic region reporter for CBC Indigenous. He is a proud father and you can follow his work @oggycane4lyfe