Depending on the Kindness of Others

My associates and I feel very grateful that so many have stepped forward to make our free public model-railroad programs possible. Since 2005 dozens of people from near and far have generously donated model-railroad locomotives, cars, track, and the spaces to run them so that children and adults can have the experience of playing with electric trains and feeling the joy and satisfaction of doing so.

New Gift of HO Trains Comes With the Holidays - In the spirit of the season, a Pennsylvania woman has donated a trove of electric trains handed down in her family to the free Wheelchair Engineers program at the Columbia Mall at exit 232 on Interstate 80.

Rebecca Noel, whose name is like a picture of Christmas, brought in the trains after visiting with two children and liking what she saw.

“The children pressed the buttons that made the operating features work. They followed the trains around the tracks,” she says, “and I thought, ‘This is the place for our trains – where lots of children will enjoy them.’

” Ms. Noel inherited the trains from her uncle Mike, who, in turn, had inherited the trains from her grandfather.

“They have been languishing in our basement for a long time,” she adds, “not doing anybody any good.”

She joins dozens of men and women from as faraway as the British Isles, Michigan, Minnesota, New York City and other places who have given trains and other accessories to the Wheelchair Engineers program and its associated model-railroad layout called Saturday Trains in Danville, Pennsylvania, 65 miles north of the state capital.

“Everything we have is donated,” says Bob Bomboy, who created the Saturday Trains layout in 2005 by teaching a group of middle-schoolers to build a 4-by-8-foot layout of plaster mountains with one Santa Fe passenger train running around the track.

Since then thousands of children and adults have visited the two free programs, delighting in the whistles and horns, the ice skaters, the unloading coal cars and log cars, and the miniature watchman who runs out of his shanty, swinging his red lantern, whenever a train comes rushing by.

The model-railroad layouts have grown steadily, adding more and more trains and accessories. They have appeared on TV, on the internet, on Facebook, and in national magazines. Everything is hands-on. Children and adults can run the trains to their hearts’ content. And they do, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and Mondays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. throughout the year.

We began more than six years ago with a sheet of plywood, some castoff MTH track in a figure-eight, and a steam engine of mine. My church offered a large unused room. Children built a snowy landscape, and, to bring the scene to life, several churchwomen loaned winter-scene figures from their miniature collections.

A Loose Ties club member with a collection of 300 trains donated a 1939 Lionel steam engine, a Union Pacific diesel from the 1950s, a 1928 standard-gauge crossing gate, and 50 feet of Lionel track that had been in a flood.

Another man hauled in 50 feet of GarGraves track that he had torn out of his layout. Visitors brought us a 1950s Marx steam engine with five cars; and a widow whose husband had been a cardiologist donated 40 cardstock structures he had meticulously constructed over the course of his life. A man in Minnesota who saw our Saturday Trains program on YouTube sent us an animated boxcar and a passenger car. A family whose son has been in a wheelchair all his life donated a holiday tree; others brought us shining decorations for it. Daycare children made wonderful, cinnamon-scented figures to hang on it. We acquired dozens of attic donations; they are too numerous to mention here, but they have filled out our display beautifully.

Our trains don’t have embedded microchips and fan-driven smoke machines. Most are older than I am, and in better condition, even after all their bumps and bruises. We’ve built low guard rails around the edge of our layout, but if there’s a wreck we don’t feel too badly because we can fix our old engines and get them running again.

I saw, in the national model-railroading magazine Classic Toy Trains, a notice from the Michigan-based Lawrence Scripps Wilkinson Foundation. The foundation’s website at pictures and describes famous model trains it has collected as part of its research into American railroading. The foundation owns 275 famous trains, representing models of real trains that were glamorous flagships of the great American railway systems. The note I saw offered to donate free trains to the operators of museums, restored railroad depots, or 501(C)3 charitable organizations. We applied for a passenger train, and one November afternoon a delivery truck rolled up to our door with a brand new seven-car K-Line Broadway Limited.

This slow accumulation over the years added everything that means model railroading – Plasticville houses, telephone poles, block signals (the national manufacturer Z-Stuff for Trains donated two mainline signals and a brain-box that automatically stops the Broadway Limited at our station). Train collectors have donated log and cattle cars, coal loaders, Lionel and HO scenery, a Halloween animation, and a child’s figure swinging under a leafy tree.

In May of 2009, when we wanted to offer our free program to disABLED children and adults, the Loose Ties model railroad club took our Wheelchair Engineers program under the umbrella of its very broad liability insurance coverage, making it possible for us to accept the Columbia Mall’s generous offer of free ground-floor space in the mall, where we can operate at no cost. A scoutmaster offered a double-decker train platform that his grandfather had built. A backhoe operator brought us an operating model streetcar.

Truly, the wonderful, overflowing generosity we see every week has overwhelmed my associates and me and buttressed our belief in the kindness of others. At Wheelchair Engineers, we don’t accept monetary donations. For us, seeing children laugh and smile is a great joy, one that makes us smile too.

If you are interested in making a donation please email us for more information and our mailing address.

Copyright 2011 Wheelchair Engineers, all rights reserved.