At his home in Andover, Mel Hartman oversees a workshop that would do Santa Claus proud. It has produced hundreds of thousands of old-time wooden toys that go to less fortunate children. Most get delivered at Christmastime, but it’s a year-round endeavor.
Hartman, who is better known around the workshop as Santa, founded the nonprofit TLC Toys (for “tender loving care”) in 1990.
“My wife says our home is basically a woodworker’s dream with a mobile home attached,” he said.
The roar of drill presses, sanders and other equipment is continual. Sawdust can be found all over the place, but Hartman takes care not to track it inside the house. “I’ve been married 56 years, and I want to keep it that way,” he quipped.
This year, TLC produced 30,000 toys, a record for the volunteer-driven operation.
Lumber, paint and other supplies are donated, but TLC Toys still has to pay for rent on a separate warehouse in Ham Lake, along with other expenses that add up. The needs are ongoing, Hartman said. A recent donation of 20 pounds of glue will probably last only a few months, he added.
The sheer volume of toys manufactured by TLC Toys has grown exponentially over the years. “Our only goal in productivity is to fill all of the requests that we get,” Hartman said, adding that TLC Toys has always been able to do just that. Occasionally, toy orders have even been filled on Christmas Day.
By the end of September, the warehouse is jam-packed. “You can’t drive a forklift down it,” he said. “That’s how full it gets. But by the middle of December, it’s like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. It’s bare.”
The toys go to charities, hospitals, shelters, churches and more, some of which have a global reach.
Hartman claims that TLC Toys is the largest operation of its type in the country. “There are others that do what we do, but nobody even comes close to operating on this level,” he said.
He gets satisfaction from knowing he’s helping children. “If you can help the kids, who else is better to help?” he said. “I love doing what I’m doing.”
A Christmas story
For Hartman, it was an interest in restoring old clocks that brought him to woodworking, in a roundabout way. On a whim, he used leftover oak scraps from a clock-related project to handcraft a toy truck for his toddler grandson for Christmas in 1989.
The little wooden truck was such a hit that Hartman produced a bunch more. His two older grandchildren got to pick out one each. They gave away the others to friends, at Hartman’s prompting.
One friend’s mom said the toy “was too nice to play with,” Hartman said, so she put it in a high-up place in the house, on display. The story got back to Hartman. “I made a new toy real quick and I gave it to my grandson to give to him.”
Coincidentally, he heard about an Iowa man who filled a pickup truck with similar toys for low-income children in Minneapolis. Hartman, 75, a retired district manager for American Family Insurance, took that as a personal challenge: He resolved to make two truckloads of toys for children in need during the 1990 holiday season. Hartman and some friends outdid themselves, making six truckloads of toys.
That effort evolved into TLC Toys, which incorporated as a nonprofit in 1991. Since then, the group has gone from making three different toys to 84, Hartman said. The assortment includes farm trucks, fire trucks, jewelry boxes, kaleidoscopes, pine cars, road graders, train sets, rocking chairs and more.
Hartman designed more than half the toys. He comes up with ideas while he’s out and about. For example, one day he was stuck in traffic next to a side dump semitrailer truck. He went home and sketched out a version.
His favorite toy is a doll cradle. It’s a pretty solid item. “You’d have to run over it with a vehicle to damage it,” he said.
Neighbors, retirees, prison inmates and youth and adults completing community service come together to make the toys, akin to a sewing circle. “That’s one of the keys, the fact that people are part of the process,” Hartman said.
One group works on toys that involve curved types of cuts, such as dragons, knights and Christmas trees, while other individuals spread out all over the place stitch together doll clothes.
Running the workshop and the warehouse is a major coordination effort. “You have to understand that different people have different skills,” Hartman said.
Whatever their skills, “The standard around here is, and everyone knows it, is that ‘it must be good enough for Mel’s grandkids or it’s not going out the door,’ ” he said.
Longtime volunteer John Karst, an Oak Grove Township resident, said he takes the mission to heart. “I never had toys like this. You don’t find this kind of quality construction.”
It’s inspiring to see how “Mel goes way out of his way to help kids with toys,” he said.
A decade-old promise kept
Brad Chabot, an Andover resident, happened to meet Hartman at a gas station years ago on his way to pick up coffee and doughnuts. As a woodworker, “I told Mel I’d come and help out when I retired,” he said.
He tacked Hartman’s business card to his bulletin board, where it stayed for a decade. The former UPS delivery driver finally retired several years ago. “I kept my promise,” he said, adding that he’s referred his friends to the place, as well.
Tina Borg, also of Andover, who arrived at TLC Toys a couple of months ago, said that passion is evident in her co-volunteers. “I see what they’re doing and they love it,” she said. “It makes me feel good when I go home, just the small part that I do.”
The toys make her nostalgic for those her grandfather made for her when she was young. Also, the attention to detail at TLC Toys is admirable. “Every doll here has a name,” she said.
Those are the types of things that impressed Sandy Forrest, too. She has worked with TLC Toys at Glen Cary Lutheran Church in Ham Lake, where she’s a member, and as a representative of the Thrivent Financial board, for many years.
Of Hartman, she said, “He’s an amazing man with an amazing mission.”
It’s fun to see the children’s faces when they get their toys. “Their eyes get as big as saucers,” she said. “For some kids, it’s the only real honest-to-goodness toy they’ve had in a long time.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.