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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.
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