Ever wonder how Mainers collect hundreds of thousands of holiday gifts for needy families every year and how those gifts of money, clothes and toys are distributed?

Here’s how it works:

Items are collected from businesses and private donors by churches, civic groups, the Salvation Army and hundreds of nonprofits. In most cases, families fill out confidential applications demonstrating their financial need.

Agencies evaluate those applications and make arrangements for qualified families (usually parents or grandparents) to pick up the gifts at some central location. In some cases, applications are filed by friends of families when there is obvious need but parents or grandparents may be reluctant to ask for help.

The Marines’ Toys for Tots program works a little differently. The Marines accept applications from IRS-approved nonprofits, called “501 Charlies,” and distribute tens of thousands of gifts by the truckload directly to nonprofits. It is then up to the nonprofits to ensure the toys are delivered to families who have applied for help.

In Maine, these operations are largely volunteer-based so operational overhead is slim and donations are passed along directly to families in need.

Support your local Santa

Realtor Nina Wheeler believes in Santa Claus.

Wheeler coordinates Bethel Christmas for Families, a holiday gift collection and distribution project supported by thousands of people around Bethel and the River Valley.

Thirty years of involvement has convinced her the spirit of Santa exists.

One year, after all the collected gifts had been distributed in her community, Wheeler received a request for toys from a local family. It happened to be a year when her own husband was not working and the family was struggling, so she really didn’t have anything to offer the family.

Then, that night, “lo and behold,” Wheeler said, someone anonymously dropped off a box of gifts on her front door, gifts that were perfectly suited to the family who had requested her help.

“If anybody asks me if I believe in Santa Claus, I really do. There have been too many Santa Clauses who have helped” over the years, she said, help that continues to amaze her.

The few, the proud

Wheeler works among a network of Mainers who recognize families’ financial struggles and want to provide happy holidays. It’s not an easy task to solicit donations, sort through applications for help and coordinate delivery of the gifts.

The holiday shopping season for these community gift programs is year-round.

This year, the high cost of fuel has increased the need for donations in some communities, but the Marines’ Toys for Tots program has seen a slight dip.

The biggest toy collection effort in Maine is run behind a gated fence, topped with concertina wire, in a secure warehouse in Topsham.

Company A, 1st Ballation, 25th Marines run Maine’s Toys for Tots program, an effort of this reserve infantry unit that stretches from Presque Isle to Kittery.

Last year, according to Sgt. Craig Harriman, his Company had a rotating staff of 150, with 12 working full-time on Toys for Tots. This year, he said, “we have a staff of six total because Marines have been deployed to Iraq. Our units are leaving here.”

Despite the loss of staff, the Marines’ project is fulfilling its mission, collecting some 62,000 toys, sorting through applications from nonprofit organizations and arranging for distribution.

Harriman said the cost of fuel has made it difficult for some nonprofits, like those in Presque Isle, to drive to Topsham to collect toys. For instance, an agency there may have applied for 800 toys, but the cost of driving the 530-mile round trip at the current cost of diesel or gas may make it more most cost-efficient for that nonprofit to simply buy the gifts locally instead of buying the gas.

Families are in greater need and there are fewer donations, including fewer from corporate sponsors, Harriman said, but the Marines are – so far – meeting the demand.

Getting it done

Although donations of money come in directly from individuals and businesses, many of these nonprofits rely on organized community events to raise funds for gifts, including the annual Breakfast with Santa in the Oxford Hills, various ATV and motorcycle toy and money drives, chambers of commerce events, holiday fairs and church bazaars.

In addition, hundreds of local businesses call nonprofits and offer to “adopt” families, which is frequently how Androscoggin County’s Advocates for Children funds its holiday gift-giving program.

In Oxford Hills, Christmas for Kids and Christmas for Teens provide nearly 1,000 gifts to local children and teens.

According to Christmas for Teens Coordinator Jean Delamater, every year “we attempt to raise a lot of money because a lot is needed,” and the chief focus is making sure that every dime and every doll donated to these programs go directly to children.

In every case, families fill out applications, which includes financial information, but also includes very general needs, such as clothing sizes and toy requests. The Oxford Hills programs’ joint goals are to provide each child a number of gifts with a total worth between $50 to $55, including toys, books and mittens, plus personal care items and gift cards for food and gas for the teens.

The deadline to receive applications was Dec. 14, but “we don’t ever stop shopping. We don’t turn a family down,” Delamater said.

“It is amazing in this community how a call can go out and the money comes and the people come. It is a very generous community. They just get it done,” Delamater said.

In Oxford County, the Families in Crisis Task Force also uses an application process, but the process has been loosened this year because of fuel costs.

Peggy Turner, who’s been involved in various community holiday gift programs for 18 years, said “people need to spend their money on oil instead of food and whatever. It’s very hard on families, especially when they have little kids,” she said.

So, when applications come in, Turner said her agency frequently asks how much families spend on gas to commute to work. “We’re willing to take that off their income,” she said, making more families eligible for holiday gifts.

In addition to monitoring the need for gifts, Turner said this time of year is traditionally an especially hard time for families, and she’s seeing an increase in domestic violence issues.

In a culture where families have less involvement with extended families, and there are greater financial and substance abuses crises, it’s becoming “harder for them to maintain their households and keep their kids safe.”

Being able to lessen the stress of holiday shopping or being able to qualify for a Thanksgiving or Christmas food basket, helps. “It’s a basic need thing,” Turner said.

Forward spirit

In Bethel, Wheeler said it’s important to her organization that every child who receives a gift also receives a new set of clothes. They also gets books, puzzles and age-appropriate toys.

She’s not seeing a greater demand there, but there is a change in demand. There are a couple of new families who have applied, and others who have received help have not applied because they’re doing better this year. In some cases, those families have donated to Bethel Christmas for Families to help others who may have helped them in the past.

Wheeler sees this spirit of paying it forward every year.

“It’s amazing to me how many people are so full of goodwill,” Wheeler said,

“When I was growing up, my family had nothing,” Wheeler said. Her father worked three jobs “to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table. If we hadn’t had the Marines that showed up at our door for Christmas, we wouldn’t have had a Christmas.”

So, while she was growing up, Wheeler decided she was going to pay that generosity back. “I believe every child should have a Christmas. Every family should have a Christmas,” she said, and has never turned down a family’s request for help.

It’s all about making sure other people have something to celebrate.

The Marines, after having distributed toys to nonprofit applicants, hold a first-come, first-served gift giveaway every year. This year, it will be held Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 19 and 20, at their warehouse in Topsham.

Adults need to send an e-mail request to [email protected], and bring a valid form of ID to the warehouse. Marines will supply toys until the last one is given away.

Toy collection begins again in early January.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.