Nov. 19—With the rising number people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, many parents don't have enough money to pay for food, rent and utilities, let alone buy gifts for their children this holiday season.
More people are showing up at food pantries, advocates for the poor say people are struggling and the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
"My family is in need of help this year," a mother of four from the Midcoast wrote to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund earlier this month. Her four sons range in ages from 6 months to 8 years. Their father is self-employed and is in and out of work.
Because they don't have enough money to cover basic needs, a relative has moved out of her house and into a camper in the yard so that the children can live in the house. "We appreciate any help you can give," she wrote to the Toy Fund.
The circumstance she describes is too familiar.
The number of letters asking for help so far this year is more than 1,600, "which is high, considering it's not even Thanksgiving," said Jeff Ham, operations manager of the Toy Fund. "Believe me, from the applications I've seen, there's a big need."
In those letters, more parents this year said they've been evicted because they couldn't afford the rent increase and are living in their vehicles or homeless shelters. Parents wrote that a spouse has died, or a parent is sick with cancer. Some have lost jobs, and households have been thrown into deeper debt when their car broke down.
Mothers and children escaping domestic violence and struggling to start over is another common story.
As the holidays near, donors and volunteers are helping struggling families through the Press Herald Toy Fund, which this year marks the 75th year the charity is providing gifts to children in need. Donations from newspaper readers will allow the fund to make sure all those children will have new toys and books this holiday season.
The Toy Fund began in December 1949, when two friends — a newspaper editor and a social worker — got together to brighten Christmas for children.
Matthew I. Barron was Portland's assistant welfare director and saw how families were struggling and knew that many youngsters were not likely to receive any Christmas gifts. His friend was Robert Bruce Beith, editor of the Portland Evening Express and author of a local news column. The two decided that Beith, who wrote under the name of Bruce Roberts, would ask readers for donations. Barron would use the money to buy toys for needy Portland children.
In 1949, their goal was to raise $1,000. Their call was answered in a big way.
Readers and charities donated nearly four times their goal, $3,903.55, plus $500 worth of new toys. That allowed them to buy 500 dolls, 60 sleds, 100 footballs, 1,500 books and 2,500 mechanical toys that Christmas. The toys were distributed to 1,500 children not only in Portland, but 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.
When the Evening Express closed in 1990, the Portland Press Herald kept the tradition going. In 2021, the Toy Fund expanded its reach to donors by teaming up with the Sun Journal in Lewiston and the Times Record in Brunswick.
The charity that Barron and Beith started and is now run by the newspaper is unique, Ham said. "It's amazing. There's never been a year that this didn't happen," he said.
The ownership of the newspaper has changed. The economy has changed, he said. But "the Toy Fund just keeps going."
It also has outlived the founders. 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."
That caring continues because of the generosity from volunteers and newspaper readers who donate.
Donation totals have reached $250,000 in the past few years, Ham said, which is the goal for 2023. Typically, the Toy Fund provides gifts for 3,000 children in six counties: York, Cumberland, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Knox and Androscoggin.
"We are so grateful for the annual support for these kids that we see from our Maine community," said Stefanie Manning, president of the Toy Fund board and chief of staff for the Maine Trust for Local News.
Volunteers donate their time in the Press Herald's South Portland plant sorting gifts piled tall on pallets. They bag new toys, games, books, winter hats and blankets according to the number and ages of children listed in the letters from parents. Volunteers bundle and hand out large, bright red bags of gifts.
"We operate with a whole lot of volunteer help. I have 36 signed up," Ham said. "They do so much."
One of the volunteers is Joe Carlin, of Windham, who helps with some of his siblings — a Carlin family tradition started by their parents, Harry and Lois Carlin. The couple had 12 children. When their children grew older and no longer needed toys at Christmas, the parents started donating $120 each year, $10 for each of their 12 kids to the Toy Fund. Their donation came with a note, "from the 12 Cs."
"I am No. 9," Joe Carlin said with a chuckle. When his mother died in 2010, his father, a Korean War veteran and farmer, kept giving every Christmas. When he died in 2020, his children made a $20,000 donation honoring their father's request.
Joe Carlin and some of his siblings began volunteering after his father died. "I really enjoy it," he said. "We thought it would be nice for some of us to volunteer."
Like other volunteers, he's spending hours in the plant sorting and bagging toys and books. Given the huge piles of toys, it's a big job, he said, "trying to figure out which ones go to which age group."
The bags of gifts have begun to be distributed. On Friday, two people from the Salvation Army picked up 85 bags, filling a van.
Without the Toy Fund, Ham said, he doesn't know how so many families would get that kind of help during the holidays.
The effort is heartwarming, Ham said, "when you look at all the volunteers, then you look at all the donors and how many people step up and do something for someone else."