Santa’s workshop in Minnesota

Hartman and his volunteer ‘elves’ bring the Christmas spirit to thousands of children each year

Following in the same kind-hearted spirit of giving as the Jolly Old Man, Mel Hartman, of Andover, has become a benevolent figure of Christmas for thousands of children in the Minneapolis area for more than 20 years. His generosity regularly extends to youth in Dayton during Santa’s annual visit to Daytona Park

Dallas Casey (left), 10, gives a boost to Logan Ohlgren (middle), 3 as they, along with Austin Ohlgren(right), 7, check out the wooden toys carved and donated by Mel Hartman. (Photo by Mindy Mateuszczyk)

Dallas Casey (left), 10, gives a boost to Logan Ohlgren (middle), 3 as they, along with Austin Ohlgren(right), 7, check out the wooden toys carved and donated by Mel Hartman. (Photo by Mindy Mateuszczyk)

Properties coordinated by the Dayton Lions.

On any given morning, even before the sun rises, Hartman can be found in his workshop making toys. He may be working on a wooden firetruck, a semi truck, a bi-plane or even a jewelry box or kaleidoscope. These are just a handful of the many wooden toys Hartman skillfully creates.

Over the past two decades Hartman and his volunteer “elves” have sent out more than 180,000 toys to children and lined their pockets with… nothing. That is, nothing but love and joy.

“Christmas morning, I’m nine feet tall because I know of they joy they are experiencing,” said Hartman whose start in toymaking began as a hobby.

In November 1989 Hartman made a wooden truck for his one-year-old grandson. Within a week his two older grandsons wanted one so he gathered up some more scraps of oak and made nine more trucks. His two older grandsons each kept on and gave the others to friends as Christmas gifts.

Hartman’s family reported back to him on the popularity of his trucks with the recipients. At the same time, he heard a news report of a man who made a pickup load of wooden toys to donate to Toys for Tots. Inspired by this and the positive feedback from the trucks he’d recently made, Hartman challenged himself resolving to make two pickup loads of wooden toys by Christmas 1990.

Within three months Hartman had a number of toys included a three piece train set that needed painting Since he loved woodworking but not painting he recruited volunteers from the Blaine Senior Center. Together, they made 1,500 toys, enough to fill up 6 pickup trucks. Toys were distributed to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, Children’s Home Society, Anoka County Head Start and Sharing and Caring Hands among other locations.

Two days after Christmas, they were back at it making toys for 1991. The group founded T.L.C. Toys, which was granted non-profit status in October 1991.

Today, they support more than 35 different agencies making nearly 20 different types of toys from wooden vehicles to doll cradles and chairs to a step stool and crayon holder.

Approximately 100 local organizations contribute to the effort. For example, sewing circles make doll clothes and lumber companies provide wood.

About fifty volunteers comprise T.L.C. Toys.

“There’s a spot for everyone no matter what their talents or interests,” said Hartman. Volunteers spend time in the workshop cutting, sanding, assembling and more.

While many of the volunteers are seniors, Hartman says they truly come from all walks of life. Individuals who have court ordered community service have even been invited to participate. Inmates in St. Cloud, Faribault and Shakopee have also contributed.

“In the process, they have increased their self esteem, knowing they have given back to their community,” he said.


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