Kevin Foster, a longtime Cumberland firefighter, spearheaded the launch of the Firefighters for Kids toy drive as a sophomore at Greely High School. The event is now in its 16th year. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — As the 16th annual Firefighters for Kids Toy Drive approaches this holiday season, there’s much for founder Kevin Foster to be pleased about, considering the thousands of Maine children who have benefited from the program.

Sometimes it’s a bittersweet experience, too. Gift requests from the older youths tend to include items like art supplies, but there are times when something like bedding or a bath and body set makes the list.

“When they write that down, you know they need it,” Foster said Nov. 20 in an interview at the Cumberland Fire Department. “The ones that want shampoo, that’s stuff that you would think that they should have, but people just can’t afford it.”

The toy drive benefits children locally and beyond, including Portland, South Portland, Gray and New Gloucester. Those in need of help this Christmas, or know others who are, can email [email protected].

Foster, who is now a firefighter/EMT, started volunteering in high school through the department’s Fire Explorers program. He was a sophomore in 2003 when, as an Explorer, he spearheaded the first Firefighters for Kids drive.

“We were looking for a small project; collect some toys to donate to Toys for Tots,” he said.

“It was awesome; we collected so many toys, loaded them all up on a fire truck and dropped them off,” Foster recalled. “Everything fit into one truck so it wasn’t a ton of toys, but it was exciting to us.”

The program grew to help 68 children in 46 families in 2013, he recalled. That number grew to 68 families, with 186 children, in 2015. With 296 children helped last year, Foster expects this year to exceed 300.

Many people drop off toys, but the program also raises money to purchase gifts, he said: “a lot of stuff for older children that we don’t necessarily get donated so often, but we have to go buy.”

Those funds come from an annual pancake breakfast, which last year raised about $4,000; other smaller events and personal donations added another $11,000. This year’s event will be held at Greely Middle School, 351 Tuttle Road, from 7-10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 1. Admission is $8 for adults and $4 for children, and Santa Claus will be on hand to meet the kids.

Along with a variety of pancakes, the meal will include scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, coffee and juice. Toy drive donations can be placed in a collection box by the door. Thanks to local businesses backing the event, all breakfast proceeds will go toward gift purchases.

The Cumberland Food Pantry puts Foster in touch with families in need, as does Spurwink, a nonprofit organization that offers behavioral health and education services across the state for all ages.

“The program that Kevin and the Cumberland firefighters have started is amazing, and truly beneficial to our community,” Darcy Wilcox, a behavioral health homes care coordinator with Spurwink, said Nov. 21.

Spurwink has referred the wish lists of 50 children to Foster in recent years, she said.

“We serve a lot of kids, so it’s just helpful to have an additional resource,” Wilcox said, adding that the Firefighters for Kids program “truly helps our families and the kids that we work with, who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have a good Christmas.”

Comments are not available on this story.