Andover, Minn. — Every morning around 5:30, TLC Toys founder Mel Hartman begins puttering around his workshop. It's conveniently located in his three-car garage at his Andover home.
"My wife calls our home a mobile home with a woodworker's dream attached," Hartman jokes.
The workshop is orderly, but packed. It's filled with handmade wooden trucks, trains and doll cradles waiting to be donated to a child. On Dec. 26, the crowded workshop will be empty.
Hartman retired two years ago, and now he spends 17 hours a day making toys for needy children who may not get presents.
"Christmas morning I'm about nine feet tall, walking three feet off the ground. I can't fit through doorways. I'm extremely proud of what we do," Hartman says.
Mel Hartman says his volunteers include Rotary and Lions Clubs members. The oldest volunteer is a 91-year-old man from Blaine. But he says people may be surprised to know dozens of inmates from correctional facilities in St. Cloud, Faribault and Shakopee are also helping.
"They feel really good about what they do. They feel good about helping kids," says Hartman. "They call me Santa or Kris Kringle. I get all those kinds of names. And they refer to themselves as Santa's helpers or Santa's elves."
Hartman also gets help from juvenile offenders sentenced to community service. On a recent Sunday morning, three sleepy looking teenage boys show up at 8 a.m. sharp to make toys and fulfill their community service sentence.
The boys go to work right away, packing up toys and running drill presses and other machinery.
"I'm tapping in little buttons for the beds of trucks that are begin shipped out," says Tanner, 13, from Ramsey.
He says while he's working, he often thinks of the children who'll receive the toys Christmas morning.
"It's pretty good that he does this," Tanner says of Mel Hartman. "He sent some in for the hurricane victims and I think that's pretty good."
TLC Toys donated 6,000 toys to Hurricane Katrina victims. Another 14,000 toys will go to children in the Twin Cities. Organizations request toy donations from TLC. Many of the toys go to children from new immigrant families.
Janeth Guerra-DePatino is the director of the Highland, Macalester-Groveland Neighborhood House. The organization helps new immigrants adjust to life in Minnesota.
Guerra-DePatino came to Minnesota from Columbia 15 years ago. She says she knows what it's like to come to a new country and try to make a nice holiday for your family. Guerra-DePatino says the families she helps really appreciate the well-made toys from TLC.
"It's such a special gift. We like them. I think the families like too the fact that they're made out of wood," she says. "I think they're safe. They're well-rounded, beautiful. Safe for the kids. So yes, they're very neat and wonderful."
TLC makes 59 kinds of toys and donates them to 119 centers like Neighborhood House in the Twin Cities.
The toys look like they're from a different era. They're heavy, solid and handcrafted. In fact, the toys are so well-made that the mother of a family who received a wooden truck insisted on putting it on her mantel. She thought it was too good for the children to play with.
Mel Hartman assured her the toys were made especially for children. He insisted that the toys should be run around on the floor -- not preserved above a fireplace.
Hartman says he tries to give the toys anonymously. But he'll never forget one Dec. 23 delivery to a center that helps battered women. It was a very cold day, and Hartman was making a last-minute toy delivery. He came face to face with a mother who had no presents to give her two little girls. She drove her children to the center to pick up a cradle and doll from TLC. The mother was driving out of the parking lot.
"The little girl's face is against the back window saying, 'Thank you Santa! Thank you Santa!' And she's in the front seat saying, 'God Bless you!'" Hartman recalls. "If I ever get tired or whatever, I just think of that image. That'll keep me going another hour or two -- or maybe even a month."
Hartman says every toy is stamped with a message in black letters that reads: "For a special child."
"I had a good job, and the world was good to me. I live well and I have a good retirement plan," Hartman says. "I'm just trying to give back, that's all. Share some of what I've got with others. If I'm able to do that, well then, great."
Mel Hartman will take Christmas Day off. But on Dec. 26 he'll begin making toys for Christmas 2006.