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Benefield: Santa Rosa woodworker, 85, raises thousands for Redwood Empire Food Bank

For two years, Frank Wheeler, has traded his handmade woodwork for donations to the Redwood Empire Food Bank. He’s raised tens of thousands of dollars.|

Want to donate?

Frank Wheeler does not have regular sales of his wooden crafts, but encourages those interested to donate directly to The Redwood Empire Food Bank at www.refb.org.

Frank Wheeler, 85, opens the back of his 1939 Ford woody station wagon to show off a selection of his handcrafted wares.

It’s a literal trunk show.

A woodworker by heart and by nature, if no longer by profession, Wheeler has handcrafted wooden trains, cars, woodies with removable surfboards, bowls and containers.

He has jewelry boxes inlaid with black velvet.

All are for sale. Or, more accurately, for trade.

For two years, working out of the back of his station wagon, Wheeler has traded these handcrafted items for donations to the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

He calls the back of his car his “shop” but he has no set hours of operation, no set location and no real plan, per se, other than to raise money for an operation he’s fond of.

If you spot him at a car show, he’ll likely have his wares for trades. Same if you bump into him at the grocery store.

These are sales borne of serendipity. But also out of necessity.

The necessity part came from his need to clear years worth of handmade items from his home and shop in Santa Rosa.

Those trains, bowls and trinkets, treasures all, were piling up.

“Every horizontal surface in our house was filled with things that I make,” he said.

So about two years back, he hatched an idea.

“I had some knowledge of the food bank,” he said. “I decided I would give this stuff away in exchange for a donation to the food bank.”

He made up a sign that reads:

“Dear friends

I have enjoyed making these things and now wish to share them. In exchange for a $100.00 donation to the Redwood Empire Food Bank you may have one of these as my gift to you.”

His crafts sold so fast he is constantly making more. And his gift has turned into a boon for the food bank.

In two years, Wheeler has brought in approximately $30,000 by both his count and theirs.

“He is phenomenal,” said Lisa Cannon, the food bank’s development director.

The food bank is able to parlay each dollar donated into $4 in food for families in need. By my math, that means that Frank Wheeler has helped raise the equivalent of $120,000 in groceries for families.

“We can make that dollar stretch so far,” Cannon said.

But Wheeler’s work is something more, she said. He’s found a way to turn his passion and skill into something that helps others, and at the same time he’s promoting the good works done at the food bank.

“I think for us, it shows us that we have supporters in the community,” Cannon said. “That is his way of cheering us on and showing us that he supports us.”

Wheeler, with his sign and donation requests, flies the flag for families in need.

When his collection envelope feels full, he hand delivers the money to Cannon.

“We think the world of him,” she said.

Wheeler has always been crafty and he’s always worked with wood.

He’s built homes. He’s remodeled kitchens. He’s taught shop. He’s always done his own cabinet work.

He and his wife Phyllis moved from Southern California to their home on a hill in Santa Rosa three decades ago.

“I was supposed to retire but I got roped into doing a whole bunch of kitchen remodels,” he said.

He paused.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.”

He has built five woody cars for himself or others. It takes years to complete each project.

He does the doors, the dashboards, the roof. All of it.

He doesn’t see himself taking those kind of assignments on anymore.

“I’m using age as an excuse, but I’m not able to build any more real cars,” he said.

So he makes gorgeous little ones.

A lot of the wood is given to him by friends or neighbors. As he points out various pieces, he invariably notes the kind of wood: A bowl made from oak from a wine barrel or a jewelry box made from hickory.

But he still loves the life-size woodies.

He’s active in the local Early Ford V-8 Club of America.

That’s how he came to find out about the work of the Redwood Empire Food Bank. The club hosts fairly regular fundraisers for the operation and often Wheeler would donate an item or two from his collection for a raffle.

When he decided to sort of cull the herd of wood items on display around his home and shop, he thought of the food bank. He then created a trade system of sorts — make a donation, take home an item.

“It just came to me that would be something helpful to other people,” he said.

So on car club days he’ll load up his “shop,” put out his sign and open for business. People flock to him.

Same thing happens when he and Phyliss take sack lunches to Bodega Head. They park, pull out a couple of chairs and open the back of the car.

Wheeler guesses it’s partly his woody station wagon that draws people in. But it also might be the items in his shop.

“It takes forever to get anywhere in one of these because every time you go to the grocery store, someone wants to talk about it,” he said.

But one gets the sense that Wheeler doesn’t actually mind.

He says his wooden toys have found homes in the hands of tourists from Germany, Norway and other far-flung places.

Once someone eschewed the request for a $100 donation. Instead the guy gave him $500.

It’s important to note that Wheeler didn’t reach out to me to talk about his skills and his generosity.

An old friend of his did. The friend wanted to celebrate what Wheeler has quietly done over these past two years.

But when I reached him, it was clear that Wheeler was more interested in the quiet part. When I started asking questions about his skills and motivations, he stopped: “Where’s this going?”

Frank Wheeler does not toot his own horn.

And frankly, he’s a little wary of anyone else tooting it for him.

He doesn’t have a website, isn’t interested in launching a small business, isn’t keen to have his home phone ring too often.

Walking around his shop where tools hang from the wall next to a wooden sign that read “Uncle Frank’s” and a framed print of “The Woodworker,” Wheeler seems to enjoy his pace just as it is.

It’s quiet here except for when he gets his power tools up and running.

So if you see Wheeler at a car club gathering or sitting in his 1939 Ford woody station wagon with Phyllis out at the coast, by all means ask about his wooden crafts. Maybe buy one.

But barring that, Wheeler would be just as satisfied if folks who like what he’s doing just donate to the food bank directly.

“I like to do what I’m doing and it’s something good for other people,” he said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

Want to donate?

Frank Wheeler does not have regular sales of his wooden crafts, but encourages those interested to donate directly to The Redwood Empire Food Bank at www.refb.org.

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