It began as a noble efforttake a busload of teenagers, dressed colorfully in their best clown garb, to local Special Olympics competitions to entertain the programs mentally handicapped athletes between sporting events.
But John Millwater of Houma, La., quickly realized that he and the church youth group he directedwhose favorite activity was clown ministrycould do much more.
The athletes can only compete in two events, and I noticed there might be a two- or three-hour span when they didnt have anything to do but sit in the hot, southern Louisiana sun, recalls Millwater.
He decided the athletes needed special games, not only to occupy idle time but to help with hand/eye coordination and, most importantly, to supply hours of fun.
So Millwater converted his garage into a workshop, and soon emerged with his first creationthe Plinker.
The Plinker, like all of Millwaters creations, is wooden and brightly painted, and involves the transfer of energy. The player drops a golf ball which rolls back and forth to the bottom of the game board, rotating stars and setting off pleasant noises along the way.
He fashioned five more games, and at their debut the following season, the athletes loved them.
They were engrossed in these games, Millwater recalls. That really fueled me. By the end of that year, I started making games with a specific person in mind.
That first foray into toymaking was 20 years ago, and Millwaters beloved collectioncalled handigames!now numbers 150 designs. The games include Feetball (in which seated players use their knees to move a lever in a skiing motion and guide balls through a maze), Tilt Tac Toe (another maze contraption), and several maneuverable marionettes. Though he doesnt sell them, Millwater has custom-made and given away several games to special children over the years.
I live for these games and these kids, he says, explaining his charitable hobby. I cant cure Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, or cerebral palsy, but I can remove the barriers that prevent these kids from having fun.
Millwater, an efficiency expert for a large electric utility, uses any materials he can get his hands on to make the games, including the household broom. Nothing is sacred, he says with a chuckle.
He and Carol, his wife of 30 years, still bring his games to the local Special Olympics programs each year, although theyve discarded the clown suits. Millwater also transports the games to wherever he sees a need, in a truck and trailer he bought especially for that purpose.
On one occasion, he took his creations to the local mall for a fund-raising event in which children waited in line to play. One child seemed engrossed in the Plinker, playing it over and over. When the boys mother approached Millwater, he realized the scenes significance.
She told me her son had ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and hed never done anything in his life for more than three minutes, he recalls.
Millwaters accustomed to those well, miracles. For years he brought his games to the New Orleans Childrens Hospital, where the games had a therapeutic effect on the young patients. He remembers one little boy who was in constant pain from severe burns.
He sat therebandaged from head to toeand not only played, but offered new ideas, Millwater says. That touched my soul.
The games arent just for disabled or injured children, however. Millwater regularly takes them to day care centers, summer camps, fairs, and festivals where kids and (ahem) adults patiently await their turn.
His co-worker, Claudia Frederic, has even helped him bring the games to employee picnics, where kids play them while adults watch and marvel at Millwaters generosity.
Its amazing that John can be so creative for somebody else, Frederic says. He is the most unselfish person youll ever meet.
And when the United Methodist Early Childhood Learning Center in Houma holds its annual fund-raiser, Millwaters creations are a must.
The first thing parents say is, Are we going to have Johns games? says Sue Peace, center director.
Millwater figures hes spent thousands of hours creating, and still more traveling with the games to visit children. He asks nothing in return.
My reward is watching them play.
Many companies across the country manufacture toys and games for special needs children. For a listing of company contact information, visit www.nas.com/downsyn/toy.html.