Joco 913

Brick by Lego brick, Roeland Park man builds a charity

Matthew Gould founded The Giving Brick in 2014 as a nonprofit that collects Lego pieces, assembles them into kits and distributes them to needy kids served by Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Matthew Gould founded The Giving Brick in 2014 as a nonprofit that collects Lego pieces, assembles them into kits and distributes them to needy kids served by Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates. Special to the Star

About once a month, Matthew Gould drives from his Roeland Park home to the Boy Scouts Heart of America Council headquarters at Interstate 435 and Holmes Road. A 5-gallon bucket rides shotgun.

He pulls into the parking lot, parks, grabs the bucket and climbs out. Out of another parked car emerges a second man, older than the middle-aged Gould. He also carries a bucket.

The buckets are swapped. No currency is exchanged — only a little shop talk. The men shake hands, return to their cars, drive away. A few weeks later, the scene is repeated.

“No one’s called the cops yet,” Gould said.

It sounds like “Breaking Bad.” But it’s actually a scene from another, sometimes equally weird, subculture: Call it the Legoverse.

The buckets exchanged in the Scouts parking lot are full of Lego. (Not Legos. In the Legoverse, grown men exchange bricks in parking lots, and plurals become singulars.) The other man is a retired geologist. He’s also, like Gould, a never-will-retire Lego fanatic.

“He spent his life sorting rocks, now he spends his retirement sorting Lego,” Gould said. “When he’s done with a box, he calls right away and asks when he can get more.”

In the beginning …

The story of how Gould turned his own lifelong Lego obsession into a charity that, with the help of donors and volunteers like the parking lot geologist, brings joy to kids who desperately need it begins with a Millennium Falcon.

Four years ago, with his 43rd birthday looming, Gould had an epiphany: He would build the 4-foot-long, 5,175-piece spaceship piloted by Han Solo in “Star Wars.”

The Falcon was the biggest thing Lego put in a box. The only problem was, you couldn’t get it new at the Lego Store or anywhere else. Ebay had it, but the $3,200 asking price was a bit steep.

Another light bulb went off.

“I thought, ‘I have my own Lego. And my kids have gotten Lego for their birthdays their entire lives.’ 

Gould set out to make his own Falcon, sourcing from the 8-foot-long, 3-foot-wide, 18-inch-deep Lego “trough” in the Gould family basement. He found the instructions online, printed them off and got to work. After building for six months, he came up about 1,000 pieces short.

Now it was wife Erin’s turn at the epiphanies.

Forget about color, she said. If it’s the right size and shape, go for it. Presto: 1,000 missing pieces shrank to 250. Gould bought those online, and soon his spaceship of many colors was finished, and an even bigger dream had begun taking shape.

Gould wondered how he could share his love of Lego, clean out the “trough” a bit (Erin had issued an ultimatum of sorts: “Get the Lego out of the house, or we get a bigger house”) and maybe even help some people along the way.

Moving forward

Thus was born The Giving Brick, the charity Gould founded in 2014 that gives away complete, reconstructed Lego sets, built from donated bricks, to abused and neglected children served by Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates.

Most charities won’t take used toys, Gould said, and “nobody takes used Lego, other than Lego freaks.” The few charities he found that did take Lego typically put them in bags and sent them to kids overseas. Partnering with CASA gave him the chance to help kids right here in Kansas City.

“Many of our community’s neediest, most deserving kids don’t get the opportunity to own Lego sets of their own,” Gould said. “I wanted them to be able to not just play with Lego bricks but to actually build a toy that they could play with and imagine with.”

It’s not only CASA kids who’ve benefited from The Giving Brick. The Goulds’ three sons, Ian, Noah and Adam — all of whom have put in their time sorting, building, deconstructing and packing — have learned a valuable lesson: Charity is not just about giving money — it’s also about giving your time.

When he started The Giving Brick, Gould was sure of one thing: He wanted the donations to be complete sets, with instructions.

“My belief is that if you just have a random set, you don’t know what to do or how the pieces fit together, and you can get frustrated,” he said. “Going step by step, you get a little bit of working knowledge. You learn the techniques. Then, the next time, you have the tools to build something entirely new on your own.”

Each Giving Brick set is put together the same way Gould built his Millennium Falcon. Only instead of the “trough,” his source for bricks is now 380 meticulously organized plastic bins on shelves in his basement containing hundreds of thousands of bricks and other elements. A storage unit holds hundreds of thousands more.

When Erin Gould suggested getting rid of the Lego or getting a bigger house, this wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.

Noah Gould said the family tries to avoid buying new Lego sets, “for obvious reasons.”

“With the emphasis on ‘try,’ ” his brother Ian adds.

The Giving Brick’s ever-growing stockpile of Lego comes from two main sources. Some are left in drop-off containers at The Learning Tree, Brookside Toy and Science, Fat Brain Toys, Zoom Toy Store and other stores and organizations in the metro area and Lawrence.

Others show up on the Goulds’ front porch.

“The first year, it surprised me — people are sending us boxes of Lego in the mail,” Gould said. “We get about a box a week. It adds up to about 2,000 pounds a year.”

Shipments have arrived from as far away as Germany. On a pound-per-state basis, Connecticut, New York and California are the three most generous donors. Kansas is fourth.

Once they arrive, the boxes or bags of bricks — some full sets; some “maybe” sets, as Gould calls them; others total hodge-podges — are stacked on one set of basement shelves. Gould disassembles them if necessary, then cleans each brick using a three-sink method — one with bleach, dish-washing liquid and water; the other two with water. Then they’re set to dry on a multishelf restaurant kitchen rack.

Next comes the inventorying, with each brick placed in its proper, hopefully temporary home. There are 10 bins exclusively for different types of Lego plates, three for hinges, four for panels. Magnets, motors, fences, flags, cylinders, ladders, hooks all get their own bins, as do animals, aircraft, arms, bars, baseplates, raised baseplates. Two shelves hold nothing but cars, trucks, boats and spaceships.

In all, Gould estimates he has about 1,500 distinct Lego elements.

Next, pieces are found for “needy sets,” boxes with printed inventories on top listing the pieces still needed for a complete set. Once completed, needy sets become “ready” sets and are delivered to volunteer builders — often church groups, Scout troops and other organizations. Before being donated, each set is put together to make sure all the pieces are there.

Sets are then disassembled, repacked and returned to Gould, who boxes them and slips downloaded instructions into a clear sleeve attached to the top. They’re official “go” sets now, ready to be delivered to kids at CASA, most of whom could only dream of having a Lego Hogwarts Castle, or Beach City, or huge Ninjago or Hobbit sets.

Or, yes, even their very own Millennium Falcon.

New, these sets can retail for $150. Some have more than 1,000 pieces.

And Gould plans to keep them coming. Ten big sets shipped the first year, 33 the second, 50 the third. This year, he’s shooting for 75. Operation Breakthrough was also a beneficiary in 2016. Many more smaller sets also have been distributed.

One of his goals is to persuade a big retailer like Target to place Giving Brick drop-off boxes in its stores.

A bigger goal — more of a pipe dream, maybe — is to lease a permanent space where volunteers can sort, clean, assemble, disassemble and pack at different stations — “almost like an assembly line,” Gould said. An operation like that could turn out 200 or more sets a year, he said.

That could take some convincing, though. Gould already spends a couple hours most weeknights, more on weekends, sorting Lego. If he got a place off site, Erin Gould said, “we’d never see him.”