It was just after Thanksgiving in 1949.

Times were hard for a lot of families in Portland, and the city’s assistant welfare director had a long list of children who were not going to receive any gifts at Christmas.

So Matthew Barron and his friend, Evening Express editor Robert B. Beith, hatched an idea to ask newspaper readers to donate money to buy gifts so those children could share the simple joy of unwrapping a present, just like the children fortunate enough to have parents with means.

Much has changed since that winter, when minimum-wage workers earned 70 cents an hour, gasoline cost 17 cents a gallon and Harry Truman was president.

But these two things remain the same 70 years later: Many children are still facing a holiday without gifts, and the simple charity founded that year is still here to help.

“So many people say that the economy is better, but a lot of people aren’t feeling it,” said Kathleen Meade, director of what is now called the Press Herald Toy Fund.

Even before Thanksgiving this year, the fund had already received applications for help from the parents of more than 2,500 children in southern and midcoast Maine. And that means the charity is expecting a significant increase in the number of requests for help by the time the season ends. The toy fund provided gifts for about 3,500 children last year but will likely serve well over 4,000 this year, Meade said.

As they have throughout the decades, letters from parents tell stories of lost jobs, deaths or illnesses, divorce, domestic violence or other hardships that can leave families struggling in the best of times. But there also are clear signs in many of the letters that some families are simply being left behind.

A married couple in southern Maine wrote about how they are both working jobs in the retail industry but still cannot keep up with monthly bills, let alone put money aside for gifts.

“We are in need of help. Both me and my husband work, and we barely get by,” the mother wrote on behalf of her daughter and two sons.

“It’s nice that all the kids are in school now.” But, she wrote, “we are on a super tight budget that gives us no room for anything but bills.”

Other agencies that support families are feeling it, too.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in numbers (seeking help),” said Danielle Cote, supervisor of children’s case management at Waban Projects, a Sanford-based nonprofit that serves families in York County.

Like many social services agencies in the region, Waban connects many of the families it serves to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund. Public assistance programs don’t pay for things such as toys or holiday gifts, so the agencies work with the charity to fill the need.

It’s not just about toys for children, according to Cote. It’s about allowing children to share the joy of holiday traditions that other families take for granted, and about giving parents the ability to put smiles on their children’s face during an otherwise difficult winter.

“Some of our families want to provide for their families, even if it’s something small,” Cote said. “This is something they can give to the children to unwrap at Christmas.”

TODAY’S DONATIONS

In loving memory of Marthann Hartford, from Buzz & Sandra Hartford  $50
Brendan and Pippin  $30
In loving memory of Lydia Therrien  $500
Merry Christmas from the 12 C’s  $120
James & Maureen Gorman  $2,000
Anonymous  $100
Jeffrey Creighton  $100
Merry Christmas from Lukas in California!  $100
Frank Pecoraro  $1,000
In loving memory of Allison Broadbent Beahm. Love, Mom & Dad  $50
In loving memory of Doris Lyons, from Gracie & Dick  $100
The Colacinos  $50
Merry Christmas to all! Jeff, Ellen, and Connor Worthing  $75
Lizabeth B. Rudman  $250
In tribute to all 8 grandchildren!!  $100
MERRY CHRISTMAS! From Heather, Neil, Ainsley and Lexie  $150
In memory of Lori Fletcher  $50
Merry Christmas! Nancy and Tim  $50
For Debbie & Gary Higgins. Merry Christmas! Miss you! Love Pam & Bob
In memory of Louise Peterson and Dorothy Connor  $200
Anonymous  $50
John & June McClean  $100
Anonymous  $30
Paul & Katie Dexter  $50
Anonymous  $50
Bill & Valerie Sowles  $250
Anonymous  $40
In memory of Ruth & Paul Gonya  $200
Merry Christmas! From Robin LaPlace/Jamie Lewis  $30
Karl Thompson  $125
In memory of Harlan, Shirley, Bill, AP and Jay. From Dan & Linda  $50
In loving memory of Charlie  $50
Anonymous  $25
David K. Thomas  $10
Merry Christmas! Maine Custom Realty  $200
Bill & Marilyn  $20
In memory of our parents – Riley and Reynolds, from Carol Riley  $20
Thank you for all you do for the children, from Patricia Brigham  $50
In memory of Paul Davis  $50
Marie Barlow  $100
Joanne McAloon  $50
We appreciate what you do for the children – Women of the Moose Chapter 1971  $100
Year to date: $34,791.50

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