Long before Thanksgiving – before Halloween, even – volunteers began unpacking and sorting shiny new toys into bins, one bin for toys suited for 4-year-old girls, one for 9-year-old boys and so on.

Around the same time, the checks started arriving – $5, $20, $100 – often with a note saying “Merry Christmas” or “For the children.”

Now, with Christmas less than four weeks away, the Portland Press Herald’s annual holiday program is well into its 65th year of operation and about to provide gifts to more than 7,000 children across five Maine counties.

“Kids need something under the tree for them, and there are certainly families who can’t do it” without help, said Dorothy Kelleher of Westbrook, a supporter who has been donating money to buy toys for more than 30 years.

The simple story behind the Press Herald Toy Fund began in 1949.

Readers of the Portland Press Herald, moved by news columns about struggling parents who could not buy Christmas presents for deserving children, donated money to buy toys. They made sure no child felt forgotten and no parent had to explain why a lost job or an illness or a broken furnace meant no presents during the holidays.

Although its name has since changed, the program is still known to many as the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund.

Bruce Roberts was the pen name of the Portland Evening Express editor who teamed up with Portland’s assistant welfare director to raise money to buy toys. At the time they hatched the idea, a gallon of gasoline cost 17 cents, Harry Truman was president and Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox was the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

The fund raised about $3,000 and provided toys for 1,200 children in Portland and surrounding communities in that first year. But through decades of changes, the underlying goal has remained the same: Make sure that children have gifts to unwrap at the holidays even as – or especially as – their families are going through all kinds of hardships.

The charity’s fundraising goal this year is $250,000, a significant increase from the $122,185 raised last season. “We’re looking to bring in the same as we did before the recession,” said Kathleen Meade, the fund’s executive director.

Donations have been arriving for weeks, including a $100 check from Kelleher that is among the first received year after year.

A retired Deering High School teacher, Kelleher said she remembers how important Christmas was when she and her sisters were growing up in Auburn.

“I grew up relatively poor, so my heart is with the kids,” she said. “My parents were wonderful. They made sure we had toys and things for Christmas, but it was lean.”

Kelleher started giving to the charity first by getting her students at Deering to donate with her and then, after she retired about 14 years ago, keeping the donations going on her own.

Donations from Kelleher and other readers buy a whole lot of dolls, balls, games, electronics and other gifts, enough to give three or four items each to more than 7,000 children from Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties. There are age-appropriate gifts for everyone, from newborn to 18 years old.

“It’s a lot of toys. It’s amazing,” said Julie Pew of Yarmouth, one of the volunteers who has come back for many years to help.

Pew said children will be very pleased with the toys this year, but it’s about more than that. “As the years went on I realized how important Christmas is for children, and they should have a happy, special time, and some of them were going to have that,” she said.

Pew sometimes sorts and packages the toys and sometimes hands them out to parents, who are both grateful and relieved.

“What some of these families are going through, it’s hard to imagine,” she said. “They are very thankful. Many of them say, ‘When the time comes, when I am able, I will try to help the cause.’ And checks come in with that sentiment written on them.”

The Press Herald publishes a letter from one of those parents each day through Christmas (without their names), along with information about the fund and a list of donors.

Parents who need help can get an application at pressheraldtoyfund.org. Arrangements will be made to get the gifts into the hands of the applicants, allowing them to wrap the gifts themselves and put them out when they wish, so children know they are from Santa or the parents themselves.

Donations can also be made on the website or checks can be made out to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund and mailed to P.O. Box 7310, Portland, ME 04112.