For nearly 70 years, the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund has brightened the holidays for thousands of children across southern Maine who might otherwise not receive any gifts.

Supported by donations from readers, the fund raised $159,998 last year and provided age-appropriate gifts to 3,603 kids in Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties. Organizers have set a goal to raise $200,000 this year – with help from a variety of fundraising events – and they’ve expanded the program to include families in need who live in Androscoggin County.

“We’ve been getting applications from families in Androscoggin County for years,” said Kathleen Meade, executive director of the fund. “It just made sense to expand into that area.”

Now in its 68th year, the gift-giving program used to be known as the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund. It was named for a former editor at the newspaper who wrote a column under the pen name Bruce Roberts.

In December 1949, the editor called on his readers to send in donations that a city welfare worker would use to buy gifts for children who weren’t likely to receive Christmas presents. The first effort raised nearly $4,000 and provided gifts to more than 1,500 kids.

The program has grown and evolved through the years. Today, dozens of volunteers fuel the program. They unpack boxes of dolls, arts-and-crafts sets, electronics and other new toys purchased with donations to the fund and sort them into bags according to the age and gender of each child.

Larry Bennett, 86, of Westbrook, has been a toy fund volunteer for more than 20 years, first at the newspaper’s former printing plant on Congress Street and now at the fund’s warehouse on Route 1 in Falmouth.

“It’s something I can do, so it’s no big deal,” Bennett said. “I just go over once a week and help out.”

Families enrolled in the program receive a letter telling them where and when to pick up the gifts.

The fund’s expansion into Androscoggin County is welcomed by agencies such as Advocates for Children, which provided parenting classes, play groups, home visits and other assistance to about 800 young parents and more than 2,000 children last year.

“We see need across the board,” said Gillian Roy, executive director of the Lewiston agency. “Most of the families we work with live on less than $20,000 a year. The holidays are difficult for many parents who want to provide a special experience for their children but simply can’t afford it. We know the toy fund will make a significant difference in our community.”

In addition to donations from readers, the gift-giving program will benefit this year from several fundraising events, including a 50/50 raffle at the Maine Red Claws game on Nov. 16 that raised $358 for the toy fund.

Another fundraiser will be held Tuesday at Otto Pizza at 125 John Roberts Road in South Portland, near the Maine Mall. From 5 to 9 p.m., a portion of all sales will be donated to the fund, including dine-in, takeout and gift card purchases.

On Dec. 19, a similar fundraiser will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. at Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill, 448 Cottage Road, South Portland; and the band Sons of Quint will play a benefit concert from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Bunker Brewery, 17 Westfield St., Portland.

And on Dec. 8, businesses throughout Greater Portland are invited to host potluck luncheons to celebrate the holidays together and raise money for the toy fund. Five companies took part last year, raising $2,500 for the fund.

To participate, employees are asked to sign up to bring some type of food – an appetizer, soup, side dish, main dish or dessert – then everyone in the company is invited to the feast. For each plate of food, people are asked to make a tax-deductible donation to the fund, which receives all proceeds.

Organizers hope the second-annual event, known as #PortlandPotluck on social media, attracts more participants this year.

“We’re hoping it becomes the largest potluck in Maine,” said Chris Sobiech, a Press Herald employee and potluck organizer. “It’s a fun way to get the word out about the toy fund and encourage people to help children in need.”

Click here to register a potluck fundraiser.

To apply to the fund, download an application at pressheraldtoyfund.org; pick one up at the Portland Press Herald, 295 Gannett Drive, South Portland; or call 791-6672 to receive one by mail. To make a donation, visit the fund’s website or send checks to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund, P.O. Box 7310, Portland, ME 04112.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard