By Dave Rogers
BEVERLY — Over the last month, a conference room inside Beverly Hospital has steadily been transformed into a storage facility for thousands of toy cars.
Yesterday afternoon, as many as 20 employees of Beverly Hospital and its satellite hospital in Danvers were painting little hearts and the letter "J" on the roughly 3,200 donated Matchbox, Hot Wheels and other metal cars.
The "J" stands for Sgt. Jordan Shay of Amesbury, who was killed in action in 2009 while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. A 2005 graduate of Amesbury High School, Shay was a specialist in the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, based in Fort Lewis, Wash. He was killed Sept. 2, 2009, when the armored truck he was riding in overturned. Another soldier, Army Sgt. Todd Selge, 25, of Burnsville, Minn., was also killed in the accident.
Shay's mother, Holly, of Newburyport, said one of her son's last requests was that she send him small toy cars to hand out to children in Iraq.
Holly Shay said her son explained that even a small gesture like a toy car or a pack of chewing gum went a long way toward bridging the gap between soldiers and civilians, especially young children.
Jordan Shay was killed before he received the first batch of cars from his mother.
A few months after her son's death, Holly Shay's co-workers at Hospice of the North Shore organized a toy-car drive called Little Wheels of Tribute. They set up boxes in several Danversbank locations and collected thousands of cars in late 2009.
"I just thought it was the best thing ever," Holly Shay said.
Now, a second mass shipment containing thousands of toy cars is being prepared to be sent to the front lines in memory of Jordan Shay.
Once Beverly Hospital employees paint the cars, they will be packed into at least 100 military-marked boxes provided by Operation Troop Support of Danvers, which will ship them to Iraq and Afghanistan, said Gerald Mackillop, community relations director at Beverly Hospital.
"It's pretty overwhelming to see the office totally filled with Matchbox cars," Mackillop said.
Operation Troop Support has been sending care packages to troops overseas since its formation in 2003. Other core missions include supplying military hospitals with comfort items, sending gifts during the holiday season and coordinating military family support-group programs.
Mackillop said Beverly Hospital, as part of Northeast Health System, holds food, clothing and toy drives throughout the year, but this is the first time the hospital has held a toy car drive.
"We jumped all over it (the idea)," he said.
Holly Shay said it meant a lot that her child's legacy is being honored by the hospital.
"I just thought that was absolutely wonderful," Holly Shay said.