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Toy Fund applications reveal portraits of hardship

  • Cathy Lawlor, a volunteer at Berkshire Children and  Families in Hadley, processes toy fund applications Monday morning. “It’s such a basic thing — wanting to give your kids a present at Christmas,” she says.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Cathy Lawlor, a volunteer at Berkshire Children and Families in Hadley, processes toy fund applications Monday morning. “It’s such a basic thing — wanting to give your kids a present at Christmas,” she says.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

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  • Cathy Lawlor, a volunteer at Berkshire Children and  Families in Hadley, processes toy fund applications Monday morning. “It’s such a basic thing — wanting to give your kids a present at Christmas,” she says.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

There are lots of statistics for measuring tough economic times: the unemployment rate, home foreclosures, consumer confidence levels. But a more personal note can be found in the applications of families looking for a little help from the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

Many are portraits of hardship. There are single parents, almost always mothers, who are trying to raise two, three or more children on tiny incomes, and families of limited means who have children with special needs. Some of those seeking Toy Fund help have just immigrated to America. Others are disabled veterans, or people who are unemployed.

“I have lots of kids because I have my nieces and nephews, brothers, a sister,” writes one Amherst woman who’s overseeing a household with eight children. “I’m the oldest and I would do anything for them so I am asking for this help so that my family might have a wonderful Christmas.

“If it wasn’t for this program my family would be really sad on Xmas without gifts,” she adds. “Thank you and God bless.”

At Berkshire Children and Families Inc. in Hadley, the agency that processes applications for Toy Fund certificates, longtime volunteer Cathy Lawlor said the last few years have been particularly difficult for many families. As of Monday this week, she said, 557 applications for assistance had come in.

“We see a lot of single parents,” Lawlor said. “Last year we saw some dads putting in applications for their kids, but this year it’s been mostly the moms ... this is always a tough thing to see, especially at this time of year.”

Named after a Gazette business manager who started the program during the Great Depression, the Toy Fund provides certificates redeemable at participating local retailers to eligible families who can use them to buy holiday gifts through Dec. 31. The certificates, each worth $40, are available for each child from age 1 to 14.

Eligible families must live in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutesbury and Leverett.

“It’s such a basic thing — wanting to give your kids a present at Christmas,” said Lawlor.

Applicants are asked to give basic information — their children’s names and ages, the household’s weekly or monthly income, and any public help the family receives, a list that includes fuel and food assistance, federal disability payments and state health insurance.

Most applicants don’t include details beyond that, but even the bare facts can sometimes paint a picture. A Florence woman, a single mother of three including a toddler, must make do with a weekly income of $150, plus the state’s supplemental nutrition assistance program and health insurance.

A Hadley woman, trying to put herself through college, has two young children and is pregnant with a third. She is separated from the children’s father.

“We could really use the help,” writes an unemployed Easthampton woman, a single parent of two girls, ages 8 and 5. “Thank you and Merry Christmas.”

Berkshire Children and Families verifies the income eligibility of families for the Toy Fund. Most families who receive assistance are referred by local social service agencies such as the Parent-Child Development Center in Amherst. The Gazette covers all costs of the Toy Fund.

The following stores participate in the program: A2Z Science and Learning Store, Northampton; Deals & Steals, Northampton; Faces, Northampton; F.J. Rogers, Florence; JCPenney, Hadley; Mountain Goat, Northampton; The Toy Box, Amherst; Wilson’s Dept. Store, Greenfield; and Target, Hadley.

Donations to the Toy Fund may be dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 115 Conz St., Northampton, 01060, or Gazette offices at 67 Main St., Easthampton, or 9 East Pleasant Street, Amherst.

Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund. To donate to the Toy Fund online, visit toyfund.gazettenet.com.

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