On Christmas morning, at least 200 children from low-income families on the North Shore will unwrap a special handcrafted wooden toy made with love in West Vancouver.
The toys are made by a “good-hearted” Scottish fellow named Bill Chalmers, who has gained the nickname Santa’s Helper for his many years of generous donations to Family Services of the North Shore’s Christmas Bureau.
The 90-year-old retired meat cutter turned woodworker has been creating classic toys – mostly trucks, race cars, and Scottie dogs – in his workshop attached to his house in the hills above Caulfeild for close to three decades.
This year marks 27 years of toy donations to the Christmas Bureau, which provides food, toys, and other presents to vulnerable families.
His wife of 59 years, Margaret, a.k.a Mrs. Claus, who helps out in the workshop, estimates Bill has made close to 6,000 toys over the years.
He makes the toys simply because “it makes him feel good,” knowing a child who might not otherwise get a gift has something to wake up to on Christmas morning.
The roots of his passion stem back to his own childhood. Growing up in repressive 1930s Scotland with eight siblings, Bill’s Christmas was “meagre,” but he was grateful for what he had nonetheless.
“He would get a shiny new penny and a piece of fruit along with his eight brothers and sisters,” said Margaret.
Bill served in the military before he immigrated to Canada and found work as a meat cutter. He always had a passion for woodwork, and when he retired from the meat industry, he started a business making whirligigs and planters for North Shore garden centres.
He had been making a toy here and there for children of friends when he decided to do more.
“He came to recognize that there were children, maybe not as poorly off as what he and his family were, but who needed something at Christmas time,” said Margaret.
“He loved working in the workshop and building things, so it just grew from there.”
While he’s put smiles on the faces of thousands of children over the years who he’ll never meet, Bill has also had a big impact on the people he has met.
One of those people is Mike Wakefield. The longtime North Shore News photographer has been photographing Bill with his toys each Christmas for almost two decades.
“I just got along with him so well that every year I look forward to meeting with him again,” said Wakefield.
He describes Bill as a “good-hearted guy” who just wants to give back to the community, adding that he is also lucky enough to take home one of Bill’s creations as a gift every year.
While the children will get coloured pencils or candy canes added to their toys, Wakefield’s has a little bottle of whiskey in it.
“I bring the toys out at Christmastime and put them around the tree,” he said. “They’ve turned into little family heirlooms.”
Wakefield said he hoped to be stopping by to photograph Bill next Christmas, but if Santa’s Helper decided to put his tools down, his contributions to the North Shore would not be forgotten.
“He’s made his mark in the community, and a lot of kids will be playing with his toys for years to come,” he said.
When asked if Bill will be making toys next year, Margaret’s answer was simple.
“He hopes to be,” she said.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.