December 25, 2010

Bruce Roberts Toy Fund: Now 81, she 'never forgot' the help

Recent letters from single mothers serve to remind a great-grandmother of her hard times 50 years ago.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Children across the state woke up early this morning to a scene that has brought excitement and joy to generations.

HOW TO DONATE

GIFT PACKS: The Bruce Roberts Toy Fund uses donations from readers of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram to buy gifts for children in need, then distributes the gifts. The fund serves Cumberland, York, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Knox counties. Gift packs, for children 18 and younger, contain items appropriate to each child’s age and gender.

CONTRIBUTIONS: Send donations to the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund, P.O. Box 7310, Portland, ME 04112. Checks should be made out to the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund. Contributions are also accepted at the newspaper’s offices on the fifth floor at One City Center in Portland and online. Donations of securities are also accepted.

DONORS: Names of donors will be published in the Press Herald/Telegram and listed on www.pressherald.com.

It's not that they were surprised, mind you. They always believed that Santa would bring gifts to unwrap.

For thousands of parents, on the other hand, it was far from a sure thing.

Readers of The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram made sure that parents had toys to give to more than 7,000 Maine children who might otherwise have gone without.

They did it by donating money -- $113,350 so far this year -- to the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund, a 61-year-old charity that protects the magic of Christmas morning from the sometimes-hard realities of life, such as unemployment, illness, divorce and poverty.

"I've been there," said Ruth Hamm, an 81-year-old great-grandmother from Portland. "It was about 50 years ago."

Hamm was divorced, and had an 8-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. She worked as a waitress at Woolworth's, but money was tight and she didn't know how she could give her children the Christmas they deserved, she said.

She turned to the Bruce Roberts fund, which began about a decade earlier by providing toys to 1,200 needy children in Portland.

"They helped me. I remember them bringing me the presents," Hamm said. She also remembers making sure to write a note on each one before the kids unwrapped them on Christmas morning.

"I wanted the kids to think they were from Santa Claus. They never knew until they got big," she said. "Now, they're all grown up and have kids of their own. They all did pretty good."

Her son went on to Harvard University and settled in Massachusetts. Her daughter, a waitress like her mother, lives nearby.

Hamm, who remarried and had two more sons, now has three grandchildren and one great-grandchild, with another due during the holidays. She planned to spend Christmas with her family, exchanging gifts.

While the holiday season can be stressful for parents of young children even in good times, Hamm said she knows how hopeless it can feel in bad times. She is reminded each year when she reads newspaper articles about the mothers and fathers seeking help from Bruce Roberts.

This year, the parents who asked for help included a mother in much the same position as Hamm was a half-century ago. A single mother of two from York County, the woman works in a store, earning wages that can barely keep food on the table and doesn't include anything extra for toys.

Her 8-year-old son can see the stress, she said, and told her she didn't have to buy him any Christmas presents this year.

"He still believes in Santa so I tell him not to worry because Santa will bring him gifts. It is sweet, but breaks my heart at the same time," she wrote. "Even one gift for each of them will be difficult."

Genny Leathers, a mother and a volunteer at the Bruce Roberts warehouse, has seen that worry in the eyes of parents who have come to pick up toys at the Bruce Roberts warehouse. She also has seen the relief when they get a bag full of new toys.

"Some of the folks just have tears in their eyes because they know they can't do it any other way," Leathers said. "It just gives you a chill."

(Continued on page 2)

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