Nov. 27—The top story on the Dec. 9, 1949, front page of the Portland Evening Express detailed how struggling families needed so much public assistance that the city ran out of funds.
A smaller headline below that posed a simple challenge to readers: "Let's Prove Santa's Still Alive."
That was how the newspaper launched the first season of a charitable fund that provides holiday gifts to children who might otherwise go without during the holiday season.
More than 70 years later, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and its sister newspapers continue the tradition with the Press Herald Toy Fund, which uses the donations of readers to buy gifts for children of all faiths and backgrounds across southern and midcoast Maine each year.
And this year, just as in the difficult winter of 1949, the support of newspaper readers is especially critical as more parents reach out for help providing holiday gifts for their children.
Maine families are facing higher costs at the grocery store and gas pump, further straining budgets and forcing parents to make difficult choices about how to pay their bills. Heating costs are higher than ever and electric bills are expected to rise again, too. Food pantries report that record numbers of people are coming in so they can provide meals for their families.
"I am a single mom of three children struggling with the increasing costs of everything," one woman wrote in a letter to the Toy Fund. "I have been stressed about how I will provide gifts for my children this year."
Compounding those pressures, assistance provided to families over the past two years has ended or soon will. The child tax credit adopted during the pandemic provided extra cash to families and kept the applications for toys from rising last year. But that has expired and those same parents now need help. At the same time, rental assistance money is running out and some families are facing eviction.
"There are people who are struggling like you wouldn't believe out there," said Don Bisson, director of the Biddeford Food Pantry, where the number of people coming in for food has doubled. "The gap between rich and poor is becoming increasingly great, unfortunately. You're left with people who have very sad stories."
Kathleen Meade, the Toy Fund's director, said she's never seen so many applications from parents experiencing homelessness.
"There are so many families in our service area that really don't have options to pay for all of the expenses, plus giving their children gifts," she said. "If they decide to give their children gifts, something else is missing like food or paying bills on time."
A TOY FOR EVERY CHILD
The Toy Fund's origins date back to December 1949 when two friends got together to brighten Christmas for children around Portland.
Matthew I. Barron was Portland's assistant welfare director and saw how local families were struggling. He knew many local kids were not likely to get any Christmas gifts. Robert Bruce Beith, editor of the Portland Evening Express and author of a local news column, thought he could help.
The pair decided that Beith — who wrote under the name Bruce Roberts — would ask readers for donations and Barron would use the money to buy toys for needy children. Their goal was $1,000.
Readers and Gannett Charities donated $3,903.55, plus $500 worth of new toys, that first year. Gifts purchased by the fund included 500 dolls, 60 sleds, 100 footballs, 1,500 books and 2,500 mechanical toys. Toys were distributed to 1,500 children.
"Those facing what otherwise would have been a Santa-less Christmas were brought cheer not only in Portland, but also in South Portland, Westbrook, Casco, Scarborough, South Windham, Gorham, Owl's Head and Wiscasset," the Evening Express reported.
"As far as I know, there wasn't a child here who went without a Christmas toy," Barron told the newspaper.
The account of the successful first year of the Toy Fund ran below a photo of an unnamed young girl smiling as she held the doll she received as a holiday gift.
Encouraged by the success of the fund and the joy it brought to children, Barron and Beith kept at it year after year. Eventually, the name Bruce Roberts because synonymous with the annual Toy Fund. When the Evening Express closed in 1990, its sister paper, the Portland Press Herald, kept the tradition going.
Near the end of his life, Beith said he never expected that so many readers would "keep the contributions rolling in with their only reward being the vision of children's happy faces when they opened their presents, and their parents' happiness in knowing that someone out there cares."
Over the years, the Toy Fund has provided millions of dollars worth of toys to tens of thousands of children. Last year, the fund provided gifts to 3,540 children in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Androscoggin counties.
Meade, who has been involved with the Toy Fund for 20 years, said things are different this year and it has been heartbreaking to watch.
During the last two years, parents received child tax credits and other pandemic-related payments that gave them extra cash to support their families. For some, that meant being able to buy their children's holiday gifts on their own for the first time.
"People were proud to be able to give their kids gifts on their own, particularly with younger kids who are fun to buy for," she said. "The tax credit made a big difference for people. We even had toy inventory left over."
But with those payments now done, more families are applying for toys. Meade has heard from many parents who are homeless, some describing living in tents in the summer, then moving into cramped motel rooms or RVs for the winter. They worry about how to stay warm and fed, but also how to give their children a little bit of holiday joy, she said.
Many applications come from dual-income households that bring in less than $1,200 a month. Single parents who have applied report that they make $400 to $800 a month and have few resources for support, Meade said. Many families face barriers to earning more, including health issues, transportation limitations and illiteracy, she said.
Bisson said many people in the Biddeford community share stories of struggling to keep up with rent payments and car repairs. Lately, it is not uncommon for people picking up food to ask where they can get help with holiday gifts or gas for their cars. Some pantry clients have recently become homeless, he said.
During such a scary time for so many Maine families, Meade hopes others in the community will think about the challenges their neighbors are facing and the impact of providing gifts to children who deserve to feel special around the holidays.
"People may say it's just Christmas and it's just toys," Meade said. "But kids see other kids getting treats and presents. Every child should be able to be in that club."
To make a donation online, go to pressherald.com/toy-fund.
Checks made out to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund may be mailed to 295 Gannett Drive, South Portland ME 04106.
The names of donors who don't wish to remain anonymous will be printed daily throughout the holiday season in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Lewiston Sun Journal and Brunswick Times Record.
In memory of Linda Ford, from Paula J Ward: $50
John Testa: $100
Beta Sigma Phi: $218
In memory of Granna Hilly & Woodie: $100
In loving memory of Amory M Houghton III, from his wife, Joan P Houghton: $200
Employee bottle donation: $152
In honor of the hardworking people at Bibeau & Company — from your friend in Texas, David Gao: $20
In memory of Laurie LaRou, as requested by family, from Barbara Kriger: $25
Paul & Kathy Anderson: $10,000
Benevity Community Impact Fund: $115.60
Blackbaud Giving Fund: $500
In honor of mother Josephine H Detmer, Dodie; In honor of grandparents Katherine & Horace A Hildreth Sr, and Rifaat & Iskander Mirza; In honor of Daddy, Humayun, & brother Enver Mirza from Zareen Taj Mirza: $350
In memory of my parents, Norma & Robert Foster, from Dottie Kelleher: $100
Happy Holidays! The Eckersley-Ray Family: $250
In memory of Carolyn B & Robert P Snyder: $100
Margo & Karen: $50
To help provide happiness to children who need it. Willoughby 1888: $100
Thomas Dyhrberg: $250
Pat & Patti DeFilipp: $100
Alex Griese: $1,000
From Mrs Gray: $100
Emily Swan: $100
Carolyn B Murray: $50
Michael & Georgianna D'Arcangelo: $50
In memory of David Poirier: $30
Sally & Terry Gray: $200
Richard Lord Jr: $50
In memory of KJ, from Mikey: $36
In loving memory of Frank and Zoe Swift, from Elizabeth Kayatta: $50
Gretchen & O. Ray Stanton: $500
Happy Christmas to all the children!: $100
Merry Christmas from #8 of the 12 C's.: $120
In memory of my husband, Robert Slaktowicz, who passed away on May 10, 2022, Best, Linell: $15
C.G. & Anna Trouvalis: $300
Concetta Leonardi: $50
Paul & Stephanie Castle: $75
Joseph Long: $300
In memory of Moms & Dads — Anne & Bob Hall: $100
Pamela Ferland: $100
Francis M Fay: $200
In Memory of Phyllis Corcoran: $25
In memory of Milo Cummings: $25
Merry Xmas from grandkids, Keili Curtis $25, Eliza Wright $25, & Nicholas Ham $25
Paying it forward: $50
In memory of Don Hawkes: $25
Richard Lemieux: $250
YEAR TO DATE: $18,156.60