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Retired couple spends every day of the year making wooden Christmas toys for kids in need

'My sales policy is not to collect a single penny. Everything we make is given away,' the 73-year-old Army veteran explained.

Retired couple spends every day of the year making wooden Christmas toys for kids in need
Cover Image Source: GoFundMe

A real-life Santa's workshop has been churning out toys in Desert Hot Springs, California, for the past eight years. What started as a hobby for Mike and Judy Sullivan turned into a mission to make Christmas just a little bit brighter for families in need, when Sullivan recalled the special present he'd received from his father in 1954. Speaking to The Washington Post, he explained that since his late father—who earned $1 a day as an underground hard rock miner at the time—couldn't afford to buy Christmas gifts for him and his four brothers that year, he'd made something far more invaluable for them.


"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," the 73-year-old recalled. "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. It became my favorite Christmas." Sullivan, who joined a woodworking club with Judy after his retirement, looked around at the wood scraps in the woodshop behind their house and realized he wanted to create something with purpose. "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."


The couple has scaled up their operation substantially in the years since. They now crank out about 1500 handmade toys every year to donate to local children's charities, school districts and homeless shelters throughout Southern California's Coachella Valley. Sullivan handles the sawing and construction, while 72-year-old Judy is on quality control and decoration. "I run my hands over all the toys and feel for something that's not supposed to be there -- a loose wheel or splinter," she told CNN last year. "The designs sort of come up in my head when I see the toys."


The couple also takes feedback from their 15 grandchildren. "If it breaks when they’re playing with it, we know we need to start over," Judy explained. While much of the scrap wood is donated by local businesses, the Sullivans still dip into their own savings every year to keep their Santa's workshop running. "We've been blessed — there's not much that we need," said 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," Judy added. "That's what keeps us motivated. There's no place I'd rather be than working side by side with Mike in the shop." According to their daughter, Sheleilee Sullivan, the couple—who recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary—spend seven days a week in their woodshop; sometimes for 10 hours a day. "My parents have huge hearts — they want to give every child a happy Christmas and don’t want anyone to go without," she said. Sheleilee has set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to help offset the costs of materials and allow her father to buy a laser engraving machine. So far this holiday season, people have donated over $8000.


The Sullivans have already packed up and distributed their 2021 handmade Christmas gifts—everything from miniature construction cranes to jewelry boxes—to local charities and are now getting a head start on next year's toy workload. Scott Wolf of the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission said he has come to count on the Sullivans 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.


Mike Sullivan, an Army veteran, shared that 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." As for Judy, who suffers from anxiety and depression, joining her husband in the woodshop has made a dramatic improvement to her mental health, she revealed. "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." 

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