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Uplifting toys

Clear Lake man founded non-profit that produces wooden toys to help comfort kids in distress

By Karen Flaten

“My wife is the one who got me involved in this,” said Gary Garberg of Clear Lake, who founded Midwest Wooden Toys, a nonprofit that make toys to help children in distress in Central Minnesota.

Left to right: Travis Williams (cuts/donates wood), Steve Kane (volunteer), Mona Garberg and Gary Garberg stand with a table of recently finished toys. Photo by Karen Flaten

Gary was born in Wisconsin, but he grew up in Hutchinson, and attended St. Cloud State, working in the St. Cloud area for several years, so he feels like a “born and bred” Minnesotan. He has worked in the Auto Parts industry most of his life, culminating in owning Auto Parts stores in Anoka and Elk River. After relocating to Las Vegas, Nevada, Gary met his wife, Mona, and then became inspired by an interesting opportunity for volunteering.

At the time, Mona Garberg worked for NV Energy in Las Vegas. One day, Toys for Smiles visited the company and gave a presentation about their products and services. The non-profit made small wooden toys for young children. They then partnered with organizations in the Las Vegas area to donate these handmade toys to children in distress. It was such a great idea, she thought, and couldn’t wait to get Gary involved.

“That’s where the seed started,” said Mona, smiling.

Gary started out doing fundraising for Toys for Smiles, and when the nonprofit dissolved and began anew as Toys for Kids Las Vegas, he began volunteering for this Las Vegas nonprofit, “as a toymaker,” according to Gary. As a volunteer, he participated in making the toys and in donating them throughout the Las Vegas area.

After living in Las Vegas for several years, Gary and Mona decided to divide their time between Las Vegas and Minnesota, spending their summers in Clear Lake. A couple years after they moved into their lake home in Clear Lake, a pole building across from their home became available. They purchased it, and began updating the pole building to accommodate a wood shop, with the intention of setting up a business modeled on the Las Vegas nonprofit. Soon Midwest Wooden Toys was born, and Gary and Mona began making wooden toys for children in distress in Central Minnesota. Midwest Wooden Toys has teamed up with law enforcement in the area in order to donate the toys. Several police departments and sheriff’s offices have agreed to be part of the program, and will be keeping packages of wooden toys in their cruisers for officers to share with children that may be in distress or in need of some kind.

Travis Williams takes red oak, mostly from his property, and cuts the wood into manageable pieces with his portable sawmill so that the toys can made more easily. Photo by Karen Flaten

Midwest Wooden Toys is a nonprofit somewhat based on the Las Vegas charity, utilizing volunteers to make the small wooden toys and distributing them through connections with law enforcement. Gary has found a partner who is donating all the wood needed to make the toys: Travis Williams. Williams, a State Farm agent on the east side of St. Cloud, has agreed to provide the red oak used to make the toys - cut into manageable pieces so that the toys can easily be made - for the duration of the project. A neighbor, Williams owns property where many of his red oaks have been affected by oak wilt and need to be cleared. He also owns a “portable” sawmill, which he uses to mill the wood into the size required for delivery to Midwest Wooden Toys. It is a labor of love for Williams.

“It warms my heart,” said Williams. “It is for such a good cause.”

As Gary Garberg explains it, just as teachers often purchase items with their own money to use in their classrooms or to help disadvantaged children, law enforcement officers often use their own money to purchase items that help in their positions. Often, officers keep stuffed animals and other toys in their vehicles in case they encounter a child who is distressed. They keep blankets and other items as well, not often provided by the law enforcement agency, but very helpful in their work. By distributing these small toys to law enforcement, Midwest Wooden Toys hopes to provide officers with another tool that could be used to calm a child in distress.

Gary explained the steps taken to create and distribute the wooden toys. The process includes tracing the designs onto small lengths of wood (2 ½ inch x 2 foot), which are large enough to make four toys. Over in the shop, a station is set up for boring holes into the pieces of wood to make the spaces for windows in the vehicles - and for the axles and wheels. After the wood is cut down to the size of an individual toy, each piece is sanded down so there will be no sharp edges which could hurt the children.

Gary points out the three different sanding stations where volunteers sand down the toys. After being sanded, each toy goes to the router to round the edges. “Then,” said Gary, “the axles and wheels are installed using two drops of Tight Bond 3 – the best wood glue you can get!” Once the glue sets, the toy is dunked in a container of mineral oil. Food grade mineral oil is used so that the finish will not be toxic to a child who puts the toy in his or her mouth. The toys are left to dry on a drip tray, then moved to a sheet of cardboard for their final drying timeframe of 24 hours. The finished toys are packaged into “6-packs” – a bag which holds six toys, and includes a see-through folder attached to the exterior, where a Midwest Wooden Toys brochure can be inserted.

Travis Williams takes red oak, mostly from his property, and cuts the wood into manageable pieces with his portable sawmill so that the toys can made more easily. Photo by Karen Flaten

The bags with attached folders and the Midwest Wooden Toys brochures are all provided by State Farm Agent Travis Williams, who has pledged to continue to provide these for the foreseeable future. Another sponsor, Clear Lake Lions’ Club, has agreed to provide the wheels and axles for the small wooden toys, which are ordered from a company in Texas.

Steve Kane, former mayor and long-term council member of St. Francis, Minn., was in attendance to help with creating this batch of toys. As a volunteer for Midwest Wooden Toys, he states his role succinctly: “I do sanding,” said Steve.

“Yes,” agreed Gary, “Steve is really good at the primary sanding!”

“Usually there are more volunteers,” commented Gary. “I was expecting a couple more today, but they had doctor’s appointments they couldn’t miss this morning.”

“I am the chief volunteer here,” said Gary, “But I would love to have 3-4 volunteers here two mornings per week!” The job isn’t hard, he points out, and there’s lots of camaraderie. “We have plenty of coffee and sodas - and of course all the protective equipment for the shop work – face masks, ear protection, etc.”

Law enforcement agencies who recently received more toys from Midwest Wooden Toys got together for a group photo: Left to right: Chief of Police Sauk Rapids, Perry Beise; Chief of Police Waite Park, Tony Reznicek; Travis Williams (donates the wood) Midwest Wooden Toys - Gary Garberg; Chief of Police Sartell, Brandon Silgjord; Chief of Police St. Cloud, Jeff Oxton; Captain of Minnesota Highway Patrol Brad Ouart; Not pictured: Members of the Cold Spring Police Department and St. Francis Police Department. Contributed photo

With a new order of over 3,000 toys from a local law enforcement agency, Midwest Wooden Toys can use all the help they can get. “We made 1000 toys in 2022, 2000 toys in 2023, and now we have a goal of over 3000 toys in 2024,” stated Gary. “I think we’ll make it!”

“You’ll make it!” agreed Williams. But - they both agreed that a few more volunteers would help them meet their goal.

For more information or to volunteer, contact Gary Garberg at:

Midwest Wooden Toys, LLC, 11746 42nd Street SE, Clear Lake, MN 55319

Phone: 702-205-9452 |

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