With 33 days left until Christmas, the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund has kicked into high gear.

Toys are being sorted and sent out to families, applications are pouring in and readers of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram are once again digging deep to put smiles on children’s faces during the holiday season.

But Kathleen Meade, the fund’s executive director, said a lot of work remains to be done and much more money must be raised.

“Everybody likes to see children happy, including parents who can’t quite afford to provide extra gifts for their children,” she said.

For 63 years, the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund has provided gifts to children of all ages during the holiday season. Newspaper readers donate to the fund, which buys age-appropriate gifts to distribute to children in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties. Last year, toys were given to more than 7,200 children.

“We’re kind of like a Secret Santa for parents so they’re able to surprise their children with gifts,” Meade said.

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 each of Portland’s 1,000 neediest children. The newspaper offered to match their donations.

By Christmas, $3,176 had been raised, allowing toys to be distributed to 1,200 children in Portland and surrounding areas.

The recent years’ economic downturn has put pressure on the toy fund, with an increase in the number of families applying for assistance and fewer donations from readers. Meade estimates that more than half of the applications received so far this year are from families who never before have applied.

“We have people who are just struggling and scraping by,” Meade said. “They can pay for food and oil or buy toys for their kids. The Bruce Roberts Toy Fund is a huge help for all of the people in our five counties.”

Last year, the fund raised $160,000, short of its $200,000 goal. To close that gap and ensure there are enough toys, organizers have set a $300,000 goal this year.

To date, the fund has received $8,866.

Applying for gifts and donating to the fund are now easier than ever, thanks to the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund website and Facebook page.

Parents can print out an application from the website, saving the fund the cost of mailing applications. And a new, easy-to-use feature on the website allows people to donate.

Of course, donations are still accepted by mail or in person at the Portland Press Herald office at One City Center in Portland.

“Since 1949, it’s been a tradition to help others through the fund,” Meade said. “This is a nice way for all donors to engage in making smiles during the holidays.”

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com

Twitter: grahamgillian