Bob Mitchell, 87, handles a piece of wood he’s worked on in the Bayview Retirement Community hobby room. Mitchell started the Blocks for Tots project to provide a bag of wooden blocks to underprivileged children at Mary’s Place. Photo by Eric Mandel
Bob Mitchell, 87, handles a piece of wood he’s worked on in the Bayview Retirement Community hobby room. Mitchell started the Blocks for Tots project to provide a bag of wooden blocks to underprivileged children at Mary’s Place. Photo by Eric Mandel

Bob Mitchell is not being modest or cliché when he says his acts of kindness feel slightly selfish. While a majority of his peers check the activities board for readings or other forms of daily entertainment, the 87-year-old walks down the Bayview Retirement Community (11 W. Aloha St.) steps to the hobby room, past the boilers and near the swimming pool.

The intimidation starts at the stairs. He feels that once he starts, he may never make it to the end. Even once he arrives at his workstation, he feels the prospect of getting so drawn into his sanding and sawing work that he will fatigue beyond recovery.

It’s a concern every time. But he also knows that the alternative isn’t any better. And, in the long run, moving his body and turning rough edges into practical pieces of joy is a physical and mental anti-aging serum of sorts.

“That’s why I say it’s selfish: It helps a lot,” he said. “Going to hear talks or sit in on meetings or classes don’t do anything for me.”

Mitchell, a Bayview resident since 2007, is a retired high school teacher and physics professor. Mixing his carpenter and educator skills, he’s started the Blocks for Tots project that provides a baggie of 16 wooden blocks to underprivileged children at Mary’s Place.

 

‘Discovery value’

Mitchell — who has three grown children and lives with his wife, Jo — is not one who wants to stay idle. When he arrived at the lower Queen Anne residence he fixed a rickety bench near the garden on the 10th floor. He later built a sundial calendar clock for the courtyard. After building a few block sets for Bayview’s holiday bazaar in January, he expanded it to a full-time project.

While Mitchell forms the wood, a few women living at Bayview and one staff member volunteer to sew denim bags that hold the blocks he creates.

Mitchell’s wooden blocks are three-quarters-inch thick, 1 1/2 inches wide and come in three different lengths. Mitchell believes they provide kids with arithmetic combinations that can teach congruence, balance and form. For many children, that just means learning how high blocks can be stacked until they fall over.

“You don’t show them; you just let them go,” he said. “The whole idea of discovery and invention increases by quite a lot.”

Mitchell said studies have shown early play with these simple symmetrical blocks boost reasoning later in life. He said there is more value in the wooden blocks than LEGOs, which “have no discovery value.”

Jill Chang, community outreach director at Bayview, called Mitchell’s self-perpetuating project something the retirement community encourages and supports, reimbursing him for the cost of supplies.

Chang said Mitchell’s project is one of many examples of retirement community members who challenge the stigmas related to the limitations of aging.

“People like Bob and this project he is taking on really exemplify that there is tremendous, vibrant life behind these closed doors,” she said.

Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, which has a day center and six nighttime shelters that house 220 homeless family members every night, said the homeless women and family center receives many donations, but Mitchell’s seems to be “so much more.”

“It’s an extremely thoughtful and planned-out gift, and the impact is so great with the kids we have,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing for a gentleman to spend so much time on one gift and make it so manageable so that it fits their current lifestyle.”

The blocks fit in a kids’ backpack, a crucial element to homeless families.

“It’s a gift you can really take anywhere that will keep a child occupied,” Hartman said. “We have new families every day. It’s quite an amazing gift to be able to give.”

Lindsay Caruthers, a resident of Mary’s Place for more than two months, said her son Noah, 2, grabbed the blocks out of her hand immediately when they arrived, dumping them out of the bag to began building.

“He just loved them,” she said. “There was a big smile on his face.”

Caruthers said they don’t have many possessions — especially easily losable toys, but Mitchell’s lightweight and ultra-portable blocks provide stability during a stressful time.

“We are constantly on the move,” she said. “In my situation…I don’t have a whole lot, and the blocks really made my child’s day.”

 

From a piece of wood

Mitchell has adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s disease, which makes it difficult to work for more than an hour at a time. He treks to Bayview’s Hobby Room three to four times each day and builds about 20 sets per month. 

Beyond the block sets, Mitchell also builds mini wooden carts. He sells the carts for $5 to members of a local church, who donate the toys.

While the work isn’t easy, Mitchell said turning the sharp-edged pieces of nothing into something beautiful fills him with a sort of serenity. What happens next is up to the children.

“Usually people hang onto blocks and come back to them,” he said. “You never can tell how many geniuses we might have out there.”

 

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