Mel Hartman, 72, attaches an axle and set of wooden wheels to a toy truck in the basement of his home in Andover, Minn. (pop. 31,008), assembling one truck after another in hopes of eliciting a smile from another happy child.
It's 5:30 Monday morning and Hartman is beginning another 70-hour workweek of building classic wooden toys—automobiles, locomotives, trucks and baby cradles—for TLC (Tender Loving Care) Toys, the charity he founded in 1990.
"It's easier to put in long hours when you're making toys for kids who might not get one for Christmas," says Hartman, a retired insurance salesman who now plays Santa Claus with the help of a team of hardworking volunteers.
During the last 20 years, TLC Toys has donated more than 200,000 toys to 140 organizations ranging from hospitals to homeless shelters. The toys are distributed to ill, displaced or disadvantaged children across the nation.
Hartman's labor of love began in 1989 with a few pieces of oak left over from a shelving project. Hartman turned those scraps of wood into toy trucks for his grandsons. "They loved the classic toys," he says. "They didn't break."
That Christmas, a local TV newscast featured an Iowa man who donated a pickup truck full of toys to less fortunate kids in the Minneapolis area. "If he could fill one truck, I figured I could fill two," Hartman says. "We made and donated 1,554 toys—three truckloads—that first year."
TLC Toys now boasts more than 100 volunteers, including retired carpenters and troubled teenagers, who turn donated lumber into airplanes, fire trucks, jewelry boxes and baby high chairs in Hartman's basement-turned-workshop. Sewing groups from Arizona to New York make crib blankets and doll clothes to contribute tothe cause.
"If we can take a piece of wood and turn it into a smile, we've done something right," says Clay Storley, 73, of Fridley, Minn., a volunteer for 19 years.
Hartman also delivers toy parts to three Minnesota prisons for inmates to assemble.
"To be able to invest time into something that puts smiles on the faces of those less fortunate is a wonderful thing," say Kyle Culberson, 19, an inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. "It makes me feel that, instead of taking away from society, I'm doing something to benefit those I've taken away from."
Each Saturday, four people—usually teens—serve court-mandated community service at TLC Toys. "These kids come in with a chip on their shoulder," Hartman says. "But we trust them—they get to run the drill press or the sander—and their attitude changes."
John Burch, 48, of Blaine, Minn., served community service with the organization in 2000. He now works part time as its only paid employee. "Knowing you're helping kids makes you feel good about yourself," he says.
In Hartman's 20 years of building and distributing toys, one touching memory, more than any other, keeps him motivated.
It was three days before Christmas, 1991. "I got a call from a shelter for battered women," Hartman recalls. "The kids there didn't have toys for the holiday."
As Hartman begins to tell the story, the other woodworkers in the room—who already know the story by heart—stop sanding and sawing long enough to listen.
"I took the next few days off work and built toys," Hartman says. "I went to the shelter on Christmas Eve. A woman with a little baby in her arms and another little one at her side was there."
Hartman pauses. "I'm not sure I can get through this story without crying," he says.
"When I'm leaving, the woman and her kids are waiting for me in their old station wagon. The mom says 'God bless you,' and the little girl has her face pressed to the back window and she's yelling 'Thank you, Santa! Thank you, Santa!'"
As Hartman fights back tears, there's not a dry eye in the room.
"You don't need too many stories like that to keep you going," says Hartman, before he and his crew of woodworking elves go back to building more toys.