Mike Sullivan took up woodworking after he and his wife, Judy, retired, and he was enjoying carving butcher blocks, wizards and dragons in his workshop — but he wanted to create something with more purpose.
His father earned $1 a day as an underground hard rock miner and couldn’t afford to buy Christmas gifts for him and his four brothers that year, he said.
“Instead, for my present, my dad took a tin maple syrup container that looked like a log cabin and attached an empty spool of thread to make a water wheel,” recalled Sullivan, 73. “He cut slits in the spool and put in playing cards so the wheel would turn in the creek.”
“It was the best present ever,” he said. “It became my favorite Christmas.”
Sullivan, a former construction worker, looked around at the wood scraps in his wood shop in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., one day in 2013 and realized what he wanted to do.
“I talked about it with Judy, and we decided we’d start making wooden toys to give away to kids the following Christmas,” he said. “That first year, we made 360; cars, trucks, cradles, puzzles, pull toys, rocking horses — you name it.”
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Eight years later, the Sullivans now crank out about 1,500 handmade toys each year to donate to local children’s charities, school districts and homeless shelters throughout Southern California’s Coachella Valley.
Mike Sullivan handles the sawing and construction, while Judy, 72, attaches wheels, paints the toys and tests each one for safety — often with help from her 15 grandchildren.
“If it breaks when they’re playing with it, we know we need to start over,” she said.
Local businesses donate much of the scrap wood, said the Sullivans, but they still dip into their own savings every year to keep their Santa’s workshop humming.
“We’ve been blessed — there’s not much that we need,” said Mike Sullivan. “My sales policy is not to collect a single penny. Everything we make is given away.”
“No parent should have to choose between buying a Christmas toy for their child or feeding the family,” added Judy Sullivan. “That’s what keeps us motivated.”
“There’s no place I’d rather be than working side by side with Mike in the shop,” she said, noting that they just celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.
Last year, the couple’s daughter, Sheleilee Sullivan, 43, started a GoFundMe to help offset the costs of materials and allow her father to buy a laser engraving machine. People have chipped in more than $1,500 toward the Sullivans’ Claus cause so far this holiday season.
“My parents have huge hearts — they want to give every child a happy Christmas and don’t want anyone to go without,” she said.
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They’re at work on the toys seven days a week, sometimes for 10 hours a day.
“If anyone in the family needs to find them, they know to look first in the wood shop,” she said.
This month, everything from miniature construction cranes to jewelry boxes were packed up and distributed to local charities to be handed out to children in need over the holidays, said Mike Sullivan. The couple is now getting a head start on next year’s toy workload.
Scott Wolf of the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission said he counts on the Sullivans every year to drop off hundreds of wooden toys for homeless families and others who are struggling.
“The children we typically serve are all from low-income to poverty demographics, and for many our annual toy event is likely to be their only resource for toys at Christmas,” said Wolf, the mission’s development director.
“We are so very grateful for Mike and Judy and their giving hearts, and how their gifts brighten the faces of the kids we serve,” he said.
For Mike Sullivan, an Army veteran, sitting at his workbench every day keeps him occupied, focused and satisfied.
“When I retired, I realized that I have to have something to do — I can’t just sit there and stare at a TV all day,” he said. “Making toys keeps my mind active and gives me a boost. Some days are easier than others, but they’re all rewarding.”
Judy Sullivan, who suffers from anxiety and depression, said she has noticed a dramatic improvement in her mental health since she joined her husband in the wood shop.
“Painting the toys and imagining the joy they’ll bring to the children is very calming and soothing,” she said. “Eight hours will go by in the shop, just like that. I get lost in the work and wonder how I ever did without it before. Helping Mike make these toys has done wonders for me.”
Mike Sullivan said his beard is a little whiter since he made his first toy, and that suits him fine.
“I’m known as the local Santa, and that’s the ultimate compliment,” he said. “I might take a day or two off after Christmas, but that’s it. As long as there’s a need out there, Santa doesn’t get to take many vacations.”
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