In 1949, Portland’s welfare director, Matt Barron, ran into Robert Beith, sports editor of the Evening Express, in Monument Square. As the story goes, Barron handed Beith a dollar bill and challenged him to find a way to help local families who couldn’t afford gifts for the holiday season.
Beith got to work, arranging for his newspaper and the city’s morning paper, the Portland Press Herald, both of which were then owned by Guy Gannett, to start a fund that would solicit donations from readers.
That first year, the newspapers received more than $2,000 in donations. The Bruce Roberts Toy Fund was born.
The name “Bruce Roberts” comes from a combination of the names of Robert Beith’s two children – Brucina and Robert. Over the years, the fund gradually expanded well beyond Portland. Today, it provides toys for 7,000 children in Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties.
The fund accepts applications from needy families, who then pick up unwrapped toys before the holidays. Each day from Thanksgiving to Christmas, we publish letters we receive from applicants – without their names – as well as a daily roster of the generous donors.
The toy fund was in danger of fading away when the newspaper was struggling a few years ago. In 2012, we recommitted ourselves to giving the toy fund more visibility in the paper and on our website.
At the same time, we changed the name of the fund to the “Portland Press Herald Toy Fund in the Spirit of Bruce Roberts,” in order to underscore the newspaper’s commitment to serving the community. This season, we’ve held several fundraising events, including an employee cookie contest (congratulations to winner Dave LaFortune), an evening at the Victoria Mansion and special nights with the Pirates and Red Claws.
As of Wednesday, the tally for this year’s fund was inching close to $100,000. I’m confident that your generous donations will put us over this milestone.
Heartfelt thanks to all of you who donated, from the $1 anonymous donations to the $2,020 contributed by students of School Administrative District 51 through teacher Jeff Brookes’ annual penny drive. Students at the Ocean Avenue School in Portland and the Brown and Skillin schools in South Portland also made group contributions.
This year, I learned of a group of friends who have donated to the fund since it began 65 years ago. We know them only as JOCIJIANNA, which we believe represents the first initial of the name of each member of the original group. You know who you are, and we salute the longevity of your donation.
The toy fund board is made up of Press Herald employees who donate their time and talents to ensuring that the fund continues. Another 100-plus volunteers support the toy fund by sorting toys, organizing the application process and helping out at fundraising events, all under the watchful eye of the fund’s executive director, Kathleen Meade. Our oldest volunteer (who, like many involved in the fund, wishes to remain anonymous) turned 85 this year – let’s just call her “Mrs. Claus.”
From the beginning, the toy fund has respected the confidentiality of the people we serve. The discreet distribution of gifts allows the parents (or Santa) to be the hero in the eyes of their children. It’s a tradition Jolly Old St. Nick would endorse.
The money we raise this year will be used to purchase presents next year. Just like the elves at the North Pole, we have to secure our inventory early.
As you look around your holiday celebration Thursday morning and give thanks for the gifts bestowed upon your family, please consider donating to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund, which proudly operates in the spirit of Bruce Roberts.
Donations can still be made at pressheraldtoyfund.org or by mail to P.O. Box 7310, Portland, ME 04112.
Warmest wishes to you and your families this holiday season from everyone at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Lisa DeSisto is the publisher of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.