While many people will hit the stores Friday for deals on the hottest toys, others wonder how they will afford the gift that will put a smile on their child’s face Christmas morning.

For 61 years, the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund has been giving those smiles to families in need.

With time still remaining for families to apply for assistance, project director Kathleen Meade said the toy fund has already received more than 2,000 requests.

“We try to serve as many children as we can,” she said.

It all started in 1949 with an appeal to readers of the Portland Evening Express.

Readers were asked to donate $1 for Portland’s 1,000 neediest children and the paper would match their donations with another $1,000. the time Christmas rolled around, $3,716 had been raised and toys were distributed to 1,200 children in Portland and surrounding areas.

Named for Robert Bruce Beith, the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund continues today.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram uses 100 percent of funds donated by readers to support the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund. Last year, the fund set a record with $260,000 raised. Meade hopes to top that this year.

“Donations have started to dribble in,” she said. “I encourage people to donate because there are certainly a lot of applicants.”

As requests arrive, volunteers read the letters and assess each family’s needs. Meade said many applicants say long-term unemployment or illness left them in need.

Money raised last year has been used to purchase this year’s gifts, Meade said. Toys are ordered in bulk and more than 100 volunteers help sort the purchases. Children, ranging in age from infants to 18-year-olds, receive up to four age- and gender-appropriate gifts.

Applications are being accepted through Dec. 10. The fund benefits families in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties and families are asked to describe their situation, their needs and the ages of their children. 

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: ebouthillette@pressherald.com