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Tinker Elves: The Gifts That Keep Giving 

Adopting the “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” mantra, the nonprofit gives away refurbished presents. 

Christmas can be a very stressful time for families with limited funds. Managing the ever-growing Christmas list of kids while maintaining a household can be daunting.

However, adopting the “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” mantra, Danny Hamilton of Slidell, Louisiana, started Tinker Elves in 2012. The nonprofit collects bikes, toys, swing sets and other kid-friendly items being disposed of by one family, restores them and then distributes them to families in need.

Tinker Elves has grown exponentially over the years, thanks to consistent help from the community, and succeeds in keeping the “merry” in Christmas for many families in south Louisiana.

Zenger recently spoke with Hamilton about the organization’s mission, how his troubled past helped spark the idea for its creation, and much more.

Percy Crawford interviewed Danny Hamilton for Zenger.

Zenger: How did Tinker Elves come about?

Hamilton: When I was in prison at Concordia Parish, the sheriff’s office there collected bikes, and that’s what I did when I was locked up. That’s where I got the idea from. I hung on to that until I finally bought my house, and that gave me an area to do it.

Zenger: It started out as refurbished objects, but recently it seems you are getting new gifts to pass along to families in need as well.

Percy Crawford interviewed Danny Hamilton for Zenger. (Heidi Malone/Zenger)

Hamilton: Yeah, we’re getting a lot more quality stuff. The name’s getting out there more and that’s prompting people to donate more quality items. We start collecting November 1st, and within six weeks, we had collected about 200 bikes, and I don’t even know how to put a number on the amount of toys. We got 20 flatscreen TVs with money donated. We bought them from a hotel on St. Charles Avenue. They put all new TVs in their rooms, so we bought their old ones. I will be passing those out to teenagers. We wrote their names down, and I will get those out this week.

Zenger: What is the best method for a family to go about getting help from Tinker Elves?

Hamilton: The best way to contact us is through Facebook, our Tinker Elves page. … The month of November we do our registration. They message our page, we ask them to leave a phone number, the kids’ age, and gender. My mom [Donna Cox] calls everyone back, and gives them an appointment time to come on the day of the giveaway. (That date is already past for this year, having taken place Dec. 12.)

Zenger: You are approaching a decade since having formed Tinker Elves. Are you surprised at the participation and the growth of the organization?

Hamilton: Until someone asked me that last year, I didn’t even recognize how big it really had grown. I enjoy it every year. It’s always something new. It’s good because we get new families every year. We get a handful of the same families, but it’s more new faces every year. People are doing well, and doing better, so they don’t need us every year. It’s new faces.

Zenger: I know you can’t do this by yourself. The community steps in and helps. I’ll give you the opportunity to name some of the people and companies that assist with this annually.

Hamilton: Jennifer Jennings, she’s been there from the beginning. My mom, Donna Cox, has always been there. Crystal and Nina [Favalora] are a big help. They take care of the toy department. Vernon Shields, Veronica [Ferman], but there are multiple people that come out and help. We meet up at my house on the weekends and clean every toy, Lysol, disinfect everything, and we work on the bikes.

This year, a lot of local businesses got involved. And that has helped out a lot, because we really don’t operate off of money. Just elbow grease and what the community gives. We only can give what we get. When these businesses stepped in, we were able to get some storage units this year, and that helped us big time. The Fisk Foundation has been helping us for a few years now, with boxes, an 18-wheeler that we use to store all of our cleaning supplies, and Engel & Volkers [a real estate firm] collected a lot of great stuff for us. Stanley-Wallace Law came in this year, and rented the storage units for us. It’s coming along.

The Tinker Elves team had one of its busiest years to date this year, helping families throughout South Louisiana. (Courtesy of Danny Hamilton) 

Zenger: This can be a very stressful time a year for parents, and kids as well. Although we teach our children that Christmas is not just about gifts, obviously you want them to have something under the tree to open. How gratifying is it for you guys to be able to put a smile on the faces of children and grownups?

Hamilton: That makes it all worth it. The smiles. A kid will come up looking at a bike, and when you tell them it’s theirs, there comes that ear to ear grin. Seeing that gratitude from them kids is amazing.

Zenger: How many hours from November 1st through Christmas goes into this?

Hamilton: The first couple of weekends of November and then two weeks before Christmas are about five to six hours a day. William Chance helped me big-time this year in restoring the bikes. We knocked them out. We get a lot of good bikes, just need air in the tire, a little WD-40. Some of them we have to change tubes, the rust, we put SOS pads to knock all the rust off. We put a little time into it.

Zenger: You mentioned going to prison; obviously you have a past. To be able to turn it around and now help others in need, what does that mean to you?

Hamilton: I was just a troubled youth. I love Slidell. This is my hometown, this is where my family is, so I’m trying to make this community better. And in doing that, we have to reach out to our kids. The better we teach our kids, the better the community will be as we get older. That’s my focus. Empowering our youth to make them stronger for what the world is going to bring. Older people, or people who are damaged already … it’s harder to repair a man, it’s a lot easier to give a child power to survive.

Veronica Ferman (left) with Tinker Elves do-it-all contributor Donna Cox, who is Danny Hamilton’s mother. (Courtesy of Danny Hamilton) 

Zenger: What is the outreach for Tinker Elves right now? Is it just Slidell, Louisiana?

Hamilton: Actually, a few years back, we were helping a lot more people. We were getting people from Diamondhead [Mississippi], Kiln [Mississippi], Sun [Louisiana], Bush [Louisiana]. That year, we helped about 1,200 kids. But it was getting to be too much. A lot of our donations come from Slidell people.

When COVID happened, we stopped all that and focused just on Slidell. This year, our focus was on Slidell, Pearl River [Louisiana], and Lacombe [Louisiana]. We had to break it back down and make sure we were handing our more quality gifts. A big goal this year was to reach out to our teens; we raised over $1,200 in gift cards for them and  we got the 20 TVs we mentioned earlier. Our teens fared really well.

Zenger: You don’t have to name the family, but is there one story of someone that you guys helped that sticks out in your mind?

Hamilton: I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I will say this: It’s awesome to see people that we helped; they come back years later, and they are the ones helping us. You can see how families have grown. Nine years ago, they needed our help, and now they are doing better, and volunteering their time to help others through Tinker Elves. It’s very rewarding to see families that we helped now succeed.

Zenger: What is the ultimate goal for Tinker Elves?

Hamilton: For Tinker Elves to be a center that helps any kids that needs help in Slidell. A year-round facility that helps kids and be a resource for the children in our community.

Zenger: Keep up the great work, you have an amazing program, and your team is second to none. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Hamilton: It’s been a great year. Every year it gets better. I’m looking forward to doing better things next year with Tinker Elves. It’s time for Tinker Elves to grow and dig deeper for these families, and do some more healing around here.

Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff

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