The Portland Press Herald Toy Fund is facing unprecedented challenges as more Maine families struggle to make ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic and need help bringing their children a sense of normalcy during the upcoming holidays.
The toy fund is making an early appeal for financial support and forming new partnerships with other nonprofit organizations and two additional newspapers to meet that need. The economic pressures of the pandemic come after the charity spent much of its reserve fund in recent years as donations gradually declined and need remained high, according to organizers.
Last year, the toy fund raised about $120,000 and provided gifts for 3,200 children in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Androscoggin, Lincoln and Knox counties. Director Kathleen Meade is anticipating the number of applications could rise 15 percent or more this year as families deal with job losses or decreases in income because of the pandemic.
Many of the families who apply to the toy fund are minimum wage earners or single parents who were already struggling before the extra stress of the pandemic, Meade said.
The toy fund began 71 years ago when Matthew Barron, Portland’s assistant welfare director, and Portland Evening Express editor Robert Bruce Beith teamed up to help local parents who were struggling financially and unable to buy their children Christmas presents. Beith, who wrote a column under the pen name Bruce Roberts, asked readers for financial donations and Barron used that money to buy toys, which parents gave to their children.
The campaign, still known by many as the Bruce Roberts fund, was launched on Dec. 9, 1949, under the headline, “What to do about it: 1,000 face Santa-less Christmas.”
Since then, the toy fund has used millions of dollars in donations from readers to buy toys for hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would not receive gifts because of lost jobs, divorce, domestic violence or the illness or death of a family member. Families of all religious faiths and traditions receive help.
“It started as a good idea and it’s still a good idea,” Meade said. “It just needs some help.”
To meet the extra challenges and anticipated demand of the 2020 season, organizers of the toy fund are partnering with The Opportunity Alliance and other nonprofit agencies with decades of experience serving many of the families who access the toy fund.
Stefanie Manning, the newspaper’s group vice president for consumer marketing and the toy fund’s board president, said the board reached out to The Opportunity Alliance before the pandemic began for guidance and advice on running successful seasonal campaigns.
“They have really helped us shape our game plan for this year,” Manning said. “They are giving us really good counsel and advice. We’re looking forward to a long, prosperous and more in-depth partnership with The Opportunity Alliance. They’re experts at this.”
Lily Lynch, vice president of development and communications at The Opportunity Alliance, said many of the agency’s clients have benefited from the toy fund.
“This is a hard year for many families and we continue to see an increase in need across our community. Like many other community organizations, we are happy to share our experience with the toy fund. It is so important during these difficult times that we all support each other,” she said.
For the first time, the toy fund is partnering with the Sun Journal in Lewiston and The Times Record in Brunswick, which are both based in communities served by the toy fund. Meade said the newspapers will be able to connect more donors and applicants with the toy fund.
The participation of The Times Record also may help help fill a void in the Brunswick region left by the closure last year of the newspaper’s own Santa Claus Fund. That fund, started by The Times Record in 1967, helped provide gifts to children 13 years old and younger in Brunswick, Harpswell, Litchfield, Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Richmond, Woolwich, Arrowsic, Georgetown, Bath, West Bath and Phippsburg.
The Press Herald Toy Fund starts its traditional fundraising campaigns in November, but this year organizers are asking readers, businesses and community organizations to donate now so the fund can meet the anticipated demand and provide toys to applicants.
“If we can get an early shot of donations to go toward this year, we’ll be in better shape for this year,” Meade said.
Meade said she hears from families who receive assistance from the toy fund about the difference it has made for them during the holiday season.
“They are most grateful for the fact that the children have joy and fun whenever the parents give the gifts, whether it’s Christmas or another holiday. The toy fund has been providing joy to the children all these years,” she said. “We should all be glad to be passing joy on to these kids and families.”
To make a donation online or to download an application for assistance, go to pressheraldtoyfund.org.
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.