Danny Hamilton doesn’t look like an elf. The 35-year-old carpenter is a lot taller than the average worker in Santa’s assembly line, and his Slidell home is a long way from the North Pole.
But from Halloween until late December, Hamilton transforms his house into the headquarters of Tinker Elves, a project he began three years ago to turn used bikes and toys into presents for needy children.
For weeks, his yard is a sea of bicycles, while indoors, every room is crammed with boxes of toys and stuffed animals. Hamilton and his many helpers spend nights and weekends refurbishing the items.
Their work culminated in a giveaway Dec. 19 at John Slidell Park that provided toys to 328 children, his mother, Donna Gilmore, said.
None of the toys are purchased. All are donated, and although some were never taken out of the box, others have had a previous life.
Many children’s bicycles, even if used, are in good shape, Hamilton said. “A little WD-40 and elbow grease, and it’s good to go,” he said.
While some of the donated items are beyond repair, “the rest we clean and bring to life and hopefully make someone happy,” Gilmore said.
The need is evident to Hamilton and Gilmore. The first year, Tinker Elves helped 63 children. Last weekend, the number was more than five times as great.
Gilmore was still getting calls and inquiries the morning of the giveaway, and families came from as far away as Denham Springs and Poplarville, Mississippi.
“We gave out everything that we had,” Gilmore said.
For families struggling financially, Tinker Elves fills a real need.
Dana Farrell chose a lime-green bicycle with pegs for her 14-year-old son, Dillon, a fan of BMX.
“It’s been a tough year for us,” she said as she picked out toys with her sister, Dena Farrell, who found an Elmo riding toy for her toddler.
Hamilton knows firsthand about those kinds of struggles. He grew up in a single-parent household and remembers feeling different from classmates who returned from winter break with new coats, clothes and other holiday bounty.
But his inspiration for Tinker Elves came from another difficult part of his past. At 19, Hamilton was incarcerated on a drug charge. While serving time in Concordia Parish, he worked on fixing bicycles for a Sheriff’s Office giveaway program for children.
He long wanted to do something similar in Slidell, and he finally did so in 2013, beginning small and limiting the giveaway to bicycles. But the project has taken off since then, and now he collects all kinds of toys. People have been donating clothing as well.
This year, Tinker Elves became a registered nonprofit, with a kickball tournament raising the money needed for the legal costs.
The group moved the distribution event this year from Hamilton’s house to John Slidell Park to avoid the traffic jam that descended on his neighborhood last year. People arrived hours ahead of time, Gilmore recalled.
Tinker Elves launched a more methodical approach this year, registering families through its Facebook page and giving them appointment times. The plan was to get about eight families through the process per hour, with a volunteer assigned to each family. The goal was to make sure everyone got what they needed.
The number of volunteers keeps growing, too.
Chris Edwards, who went to high school with Hamilton, donated his 5-year-old daughter Alana’s bicycle. When he told the kindergarten student what he was going to do with her bike, she insisted on volunteering to work at the event.
“She said she wanted to see if the little girl smiled when she picked her bike,” Edwards said.
Alana, dressed in “Star Wars” leggings, trotted along next to her father as he helped Dana and Dena Farrell choose their toys.
Hamilton involves his 5-year-old son, Dax, in the family project as well. “He’s my test driver,” he said.
But when Dax asks his father about Santa Claus, Hamilton says he isn’t a big supporter of that part of Christmas.
“It’s not Santa Claus but the elves who do all the work,” he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.