Inmates Brighten a Lonely Holiday

Times Staff Writer

Bruce Levine used to do fancy paint jobs for cars. But that was before he went to jail. Now he is crafting wooden elephants-on-wheels for kids--and he gets “a kick out of it.”

Levine is one of several inmates at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange who have been making toys for children who must spend Christmas at Orangewood, the county’s emergency shelter for abused or neglected children.

The products of their labor--elephants, slinky green dinosaurs on red wheels, segmented snakes, a small black-and-white rocking horse and more--may well be the only gifts going to some of the Orangewood youngsters.

“I don’t know what they’d get otherwise,” said the 34-year-old Huntington Beach man, who is serving a 5-month sentence at Theo Lacy for possession of narcotics. “Now, they’re getting handmade toys,” he added.


“Some of these children have never had a real Christmas,” said William G. Steiner, executive director of the Orangewood Children’s Foundation. “So we get some real wide eyes Christmas morning.”

The holiday season is the busiest time of year for the children’s home, Steiner said, adding that the toys help the children to cope with problems surrounding the holidays.

Because of what he described as “the pressures surrounding the holidays,” he said he expects the home’s 170 beds to be filled on Christmas Eve. He explained that alcohol abuse tends to increase between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because of this, he said, the center serves more abused children during this time of year.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a happy time for (the children),” Steiner said. “Because of the holiday pressures, they become easy targets for abuse.”


Levine is among 12 inmates at Theo Lacy who, because of his background running a custom paint and auto body restoration shop, works in the branch jail’s wood shop as part of a vocational training program, according to instructor Harry Billings. He said the shop workers also are chosen based on their skills and interest in the program.

Orange County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Kemmis said the inmates make everything from cabinets to computer desks for county offices. They receive college

credit for their work and can earn a certificate because the program is affiliated with Rancho Santiago Community College, he added.

“The program is designed to (teach inmates) skills while in custody that can be used when they’re out of custody,” Kemmis said. The inmates get “a good, hands-on woodworking lesson,” he said. “A lot of these guys have never worked with a piece of wood in their lives.”


The program benefits the county as well. Because inmates make office repairs and build new furniture, the county saves on labor costs, Kemmis said. Earlier this week, they were preparing a window for a cashier’s booth at one of the county offices.

But since November, toy-making has been the major duty of at least two of the inmates, including Levine.

Carefully examining a block of wood from which he would cut a tiny horse for a merry-go-round, Levine said he has redesigned some of the toy patterns to make them more attractive. Pointing to the elephant-on-wheels pattern, he explained that it now looked more balanced because his version features two legs instead of the original three.

Levine said the time goes by faster when he is making toys. The job also has put him in the Christmas spirit, despite his surroundings. “You don’t feel like you’re in jail,” he said.


Kemmis said he would deliver about 30 toys to the center. In the past, the jail has given toys to the home at times other than Christmas because it serves so many children throughout the year and toys are needed at other times too, he explained.

The colorful wooden toys have been donated to the Orangewood home for about 3 years, and the inmates always enjoy making them, Kemmis said.

“Just because they’re inmates doesn’t mean they don’t like children or aren’t charitable people,” he said.