The holiday season is upon us, with a month to go until Christmas, and the elves at the Bruce Roberts workshop are hard at work — extra hard, as it turns out, because the economic downturn has increased the need.

The Bruce Roberts Toy Fund provides gifts during the holidays for children of all ages in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties.

Readers of The Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram and MaineToday Media websites donate to the fund, which uses the money to buy gifts for distribution during the holidays to people who can use the help.

The impact of the recession can be felt on both ends of the equation.

“There’s an awful lot of people who are intact families living in something other than a typical household,” said Kathleen Meade, the fund’s director and head elf. “People are living in vans, homeless, living with Grandma or Grandpa. There’s a lot of that.”

At the same time, donations have languished at about $200,000 — a generous amount, but one that is stretched increasingly thin. During the 2009 Christmas season, the fund set a record with $260,000 in donations.

Still, the toy fund has been able to purchase a cheerful array of “fabulous, age-appropriate toys,” Meade said.

Applications for assistance from the fund are typically available at schools, from guidance counselors, or from social workers. Applications should be received by Dec. 1 to make sure the toys can be ready, she said.

One elf hard at work this year, her first, is Kierstyn King, who is helping to process applications. Her review of applications has shown her the depth of need that exists, she said.

“I feel a lot of empathy,” King said. “I feel sorry for the people but I’m glad for the opportunity I have to work with the fund and help them out and make their kids a little bit happier.”

This year, the toy fund is working out of newer quarters, warehouse space donated by Olympia Sports below its new Freeport location at 140 Main St.

The fund started in 1949 when Portland Evening Express editor Robert Bruce Beith, writing under the pen name Bruce Roberts, asked readers to donate $1 for Portland’s 1,000 neediest children. The paper offered to match their donations with another $1,000.

By Christmas, $3,716 had been raised and toys were distributed to 1,200 children in Portland and surrounding areas.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com