by Jill Ragar Esfeld
SHAWNEE — If you walk into the Go Big Skill Toy Store here on a Saturday afternoon, be prepared to duck.
At any moment, a yo-yo may fly in your direction.
Also be prepared to get caught up in the fun as kids of all ages participate in one of several skill-toy workshops the store sponsors each week.
Owner Cesar Conde, a parishioner of Holy Trinity, Lenexa, came up with the workshop idea as a way to get kids active and interacting.
His inspiration stems from his store’s motto: “Discover your talents.”
If the number of attendees is any indication, his idea is a success.
“I really enjoy the impact on the community,” he said, “especially the children. My main motivation is to see them succeed.”
At an age when most people retire to a life of leisure, Conde has poured his retirement time and savings into his dream of owning a toy store.
But don’t presume he’s going through a second childhood. That’s not possible.
Because he never had a first.
Growing up poor in the Philippines, he admits, “I never even had a toy.”
A determined spirit
Coming from a large Catholic family, Conde’s life was meager but secure until his father died at an early age, leaving behind eight children.
His mother, who had no education, couldn’t even provide shelter.
“From place to place we went,” he recalled. “We were thrown out from houses because we could not pay our rent.”
Conde’s older brother deserted the family and so, as second oldest, he took on the responsibility of supporting and raising his six younger siblings.
He was still in high school at the time.
“I learned at an early age to work any odd job,” he said. “I would sell newspapers, work as a gasoline boy, wash cars — just to make money.”
Conde knew education was his only ticket out of poverty. But his mother discouraged him from pursuing anything beyond high school.
“My mother did not want me to go to school,” he said. “She wanted me just to work, to get money.
“But I had a dream, an ambition to go to college, whatever it takes.”
Fortunately, a math teacher recognized that Conde was as smart as he was responsible and encouraged him to try for a scholarship to a local university.
Conde entered the university as a full scholar. But the scholarship only covered books and tuition; he still had to support himself and his siblings.
So he worked odd jobs at night, finishing up by washing taxicabs when they completed their runs at 3 a.m.
He lived with his siblings in what he called a “box house” beside the railways.
“We converted the small house into our kitchen by day,” he said. “Then at nighttime, that was our bed.
“So, kind of like sardines, we slept together.”
“They had a tough life,” said his wife Luz who also grew up in the Philippines. “I don’t know how they survived.”
Not only did Conde survive, but he finished college with two degrees — in commerce and engineering.
Faith and love
Cesar and Luz Conde met at the university where she was a fellow scholar. Luz eventually became a nurse and was recruited by a hospital in Kansas City.
Though she had to leave Cesar behind in the Philippines, she left him with the greatest gift she could give — a strengthened faith.
“I was raised Catholic,” said Cesar, “but actually I learned my faith when I met my Luz.”
Raised in a devout Catholic home, Luz has memories of her father helping build their church.
“When I was a child,” she said, “we always had a table full of saints, and my mother was always praying the rosary.”
As Cesar fell in love with Luz, he also fell in love with his faith and developed a devotion to the saints.
His particular favorite became St. Jude Thaddeus — patron of hopeless causes.
“When Luz left ahead of me,” he said, “I thought we’re not going to meet again.”
He began attending a weekly novena at the National Shrine of St. Jude in Manila.
“Every Thursday,” he said, “I would go there and pray to St. Jude that someday I can get out of the Philippines and land any job that will pay me really good.
“I kept on praying every Thursday for almost a year.”
St. Jude came through for Cesar. He was recruited as an engineer for Saudi Electric Company.
He moved to Saudi Arabia and, though it was difficult, he continued to pray.
“It was a Muslim country,” he said. “During the ’80s, it was very strict there; we had to hide ourselves to practice our faith.
“If somebody found out, we would be put in jail.”
Along with fellow Christians, Cesar developed a system for praying and Bible study in the midst of the strict Muslim culture.
“Downstairs in the building, one of us would watch,” he recalled. “If they saw an inspector coming, they would ring a bell.
“That meant you put away all your stuff — hide your Bible.”
Again, St. Jude came through for Cesar.
In 1982, he and Luz were married in the Philippines in a wedding planned through long-distance calls and cassette tapes mailed back and forth.
After the wedding, Cesar returned to Saudi Arabia and Luz to the United States.
It would be three more years before the couple could negotiate immigration visas and settle together in Kansas.
They made their home in Holy Trinity Parish and were blessed with five children — two boys and a girl of their own, and two girls adopted from the Philippines.
Luz continued to practice nursing at KU Medical Center while Cesar embarked on a career with Lab One/Quest Diagnostics.
They managed their large family by sharing responsibilities.
For 24 years, Cesar worked nights and Luz worked days so the children would never be without a parent.
Cesar experienced the greatest joy of his life watching his children grow up without the hardships he’d experienced
Most of all, he loved to watch them play.
“That’s something that I never experienced growing up,” he said. “Just by looking at their faces and they’re so happy.
“That made me happy, too.”
The idea of owning a toy store was born of that joy, and its main inspiration, oddly enough, was a toy that originally came to America from the Philippines – the yo-yo.
In the early ’90s, when transaxle yo-yos were introduced, Cesar’s sons seemed to have a natural knack for mastering the skill toy.
By the time they reached high school, both were competing and performing on an international level.
“It gave them lots of confidence,” said Luz. “And everybody was always admiring the talent and looking forward to them performing.”
Cesar saw how mastering that single skill toy helped his children. He began to formulate a plan of someday providing that experience to other children.
“I always wanted my own business,” he said. “When the kids started yo-yoing, I knew what it would be.
“I said, ‘Someday.’”
“Someday” came in October 2013 when Go Big Skill Toy Store opened and introduced its first workshop.
Opening the only skill-toy store in the area was hard work and a big risk. But Cesar did it on good advice.
“I just told him you have to try it,” said Luz. “You’ve always wanted it. And you’re just going to have to believe it will work out.
“You have to have faith.”
Once again, faith has paid off for Cesar. The workshops are a success.
Though the store carries a wide variety of skill toys, yo-yos seem to be a favorite choice.
And workshop participants have worked so hard to improve their skills, the store now sponsors a team of kids who compete and perform yo-yo throughout the area.
Sarah Hirsch heard about the Go Big workshops and came from across the state line with her kids to check it out.
They’ve been coming back every week since.
“I think Go Big Skill Toys is a great place to hang out on a Saturday afternoon,” said Hirsch, a member of St. James Parish in Kansas City, Missouri.
“It’s a kid-friendly and wholesome activity, and Cesar really takes that to heart,” she said.
Instructors are paid yo-yo champions, but the workshops are free.
And you can usually find Cesar in the middle of them, shouting encouragement and reminding participants of the Go Big philosophy:
“You didn’t learn that by yourself,” he tells them. “So don’t keep it to yourself — share!”
And they do share.
“If I know a trick and you want to learn it,” said Jacob Cissell, a parishioner of Sacred Heart in Shawnee, “I can show you. We all just share around.”
“It’s not about competing” said Jacob’s father John Cissell. “It’s not about beating the next guy. It’s about helping him.”
“We’ve seen Jacob’s self-confidence improve,” said his mom, Amy Cissell. “Cesar is such a great influence; we just love him to death.”
She’s not alone.
“I’m getting a lot of emails from parents,” said Cesar. “The impact of the workshop is great for them.”
“A lot of parents have come up to us,” added Luz. “They say their kids aren’t stuck on the TV or video games; they’re constantly yo-yoing.”
After being open a year, the skill-toy store isn’t showing a monetary profit.
But it is a success, to Cesar’s way of thinking.
“With all the hardship I encountered in my childhood,” he said, “I want to do this for the kids.
“They’re welcome to come here where they can develop their talents through our workshop — not only for fun, but to help them become better people.
“If I do that, I know the profit will come someday.”