He will turn 4 years old in January, but he was just an infant when his father died in an early-morning car crash.

“He’s starting to notice he doesn’t have a dad like the other kids in preschool,” his mother said.

Since her fiance’s death in 2013, the little boy’s mother has struggled to get back on her feet. She lives with her own mother in the Portland area and is looking for work. In the meantime, both Christmas and her son’s birthday are approaching. She turned to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund for help.

“The fact is I cannot afford gifts for him this Christmas,” the 29-year-old mom wrote in her application to the fund. “I want it to be magical for him, especially since his dad isn’t here to celebrate it with him.”

For 67 years, the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund has provided Christmas gifts for children like that little boy. Donations from readers provide toys to thousands of children who might not otherwise receive them at the holidays. Presents are distributed to needy families in Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties.

That mission began in 1949 with Matthew Barron, Portland’s assistant welfare director, and Robert Beith, an editor and columnist at the Portland Evening Express. Barron told Beith about families struggling during the holidays, and Beith wrote a column asking readers to help them. They raised more than $3,000 that first year. The fund – originally called the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund after Beith’s pen name – was born. While it is now known as the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund, the original mission lives on.

Kathleen Meade, the executive director, said this year she hopes to reach 3,500 children – from infants to 18-year-olds.

“It’s kids you know in preschool,” Meade said. “It’s kids you know in middle school. It’s teens. It’s kids you know.”

Last year, the fund raised an estimated $127,057. Roughly $4,000 of this year’s $200,000 goal has been collected as of last week. The money allows each child to receive three to five toys.

More than 100 volunteers are already assembling age- and gender-specific packages of games, stuffed animals, crafts and electronics. Among the volunteers is Margie Emmons of Yarmouth.

“This time of the year is very, very special for my family,” Emmons said. “I am happy to be involved in an effort that makes giving special for families that wouldn’t otherwise be able to partake in that wonderful joy.”

Emmons usually helps assemble bags of gifts in the weeks leading up to Christmas. She has helped the toy fund for 15 years, but she said she knows volunteers who have been involved longer.

“People are appreciative every year,” she said. “There are people, as you hand them a bag of toys for their children, who just weep in their thankfulness for what the toy fund is able to provide.”

Emmons encouraged people to donate to the toy fund.

“I hope it will never die off because there will always be a need,” she said.

The Press Herald does not identify the families who receive gifts from the toy fund. The Portland-area single mother remembered last Christmas, when she gave her son toys through the fund and he went “absolutely bananas” with excitement. She hopes to go to school next year to become a medical assistant and find steady work, but in the meantime, she is grateful for the fund’s help.

“Thank you all so much for your kindness,” she wrote at the end of her application. “I will find a way to pay it forward!”


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