The Press Herald Toy Fund is beginning its 72nd year of providing hope, joy and holiday gifts to children who need them most.

The charity’s annual campaign starts as many families continue to struggle with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the parents asking for help this year is a single mother from Androscoggin County who has lived in a shelter with her three sons since January while trying to find an apartment. She said they all tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.

“It means the world to me,” she said of receiving help from the toy fund. “Times have been tough. I haven’t been able to provide for my kids like I’ve wanted to. To give them one little glimpse of hope is more than a mother can ask for.”

The toy fund uses donations from readers to provide holiday gifts to children who might otherwise not receive gifts because of lost jobs, lost homes, family breakups, illnesses or deaths, or other hardships. The fund serves families of all faiths and traditions, and provides joy to children who might otherwise have little to celebrate.

In 2020, it raised over $250,000 and provided gifts to nearly 3,500 children in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Androscoggin counties. This year, the toy fund and its workshop of volunteers is preparing to provide gifts to even more children in need.

Kathleen Meade, the fund’s director, said families applying for help this year have written about the loss of an income, illness and homelessness. Meade said there’s an increase of families struggling to find housing, child care and employment at a time when some schools are being forced to send kids home to learn remotely because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The effects of the pandemic and economy continue to hurt Maine’s most vulnerable families,” said Stefanie Manning, the newspaper’s group vice president for consumer marketing and the toy fund board president. “More than ever, the toy fund is committed to our mission of delivering hope and holiday cheer.”

Volunteer Gretchen Stanton organizes boxes in the Freeport warehouse Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The toy fund began in 1949 when Matthew Barron, Portland’s assistant welfare director, and Robert Bruce Beith, editor at the Portland Evening Express, teamed up to help local parents who were struggling and unable to buy their children Christmas presents.

Beith wrote a column on Dec. 9, 1949, under the pen name Bruce Roberts titled, “What to do about it: 1,000 face Santa-less Christmas.” He asked readers for financial donations, which Barron used to buy toys for parents to give to their children for Christmas.

The campaign, still known by many as the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund, is in its 72nd year of providing gifts and holiday joy to thousands of Maine children and their families.

Last year, the toy fund faced unprecedented challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After years of declining donations, readers were especially generous in 2020, contributing more than $250,000 – the largest sum the fund has seen in many years. The fund was able to serve an increased number of families seeking help with gifts.

Meade said the fund received a few sizable donations from people inspired by family and friends who donated in the past.

“People really stepped up to the plate and said, I believe in this … my parents believed in this, and I’m going to support this,” Meade said.

This year, the toy fund will continue its partnerships with the Sun Journal in Lewiston and The Times Record in Brunswick, which are both based in communities it serves.

The toy fund is still accepting applications from families who need assistance. The deadline to apply to the fund is Nov. 30.

To make a donation online or to download an application for assistance, go to pressherald.com/toy-fund.

Checks made out to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund may be mailed to P.O. Box 7310, Portland, ME 04112. Names of donors are published in the Press Herald, the Sun Journal and the Times Record unless a donor wishes to remain anonymous.

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