Plagiarism is a serious allegation in the journalism community, but I think the Portland Press Herald has borrowed an idea from Dolly Parton. Let me explain.

First, you’ll need to be aware of the background of two charitable efforts. In 1995, Dolly Parton founded The Imagination Library, a program to send brand new, age-appropriate books to the homes of children in underprivileged communities every month until they turn 5. (If you don’t know who Dolly Parton is, I’m sorry, I cannot help you.)

The program was designed to help foster early literacy skills and a love of reading. Dolly started it in her home county of Sevier, Tennessee, but because she is incredibly good at pretty much everything she does, it took off immediately and now ships two million children’s books around the world each month.

The Toy Fund – full name the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund in the Spirit of Bruce Roberts (say that three times fast) – is deceptively simple. What we do is raise funds from newspaper readers – or anyone who wants to donate, we’re not picky – to buy Christmas presents for children whose families are going through a rough patch in Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Androscoggin counties. The fund has been operating for 72 years because, unfortunately, there’s always been a need for it in Maine. Some years have been harder for families than others. I think all of us have read enough news stories about the price of heating oil this winter to know that this year will be one of the harder ones. And sure, maybe Christmas presents for kids are a little frivolous when compared to the needs of the hungry and homeless. But you know who else is a little frivolous? Dolly Parton.

This year, for the first time, the Toy Fund is including a book with every gift. So in addition to a doll or an action figure or – well, I don’t know what kids these days are playing with – every kid will get a book. This will be especially exciting for the little nerdy kids like me, who always got a book in my stocking and would spend most of Christmas vacation reading as my beleaguered parents begged me to go outside and play. I think the fund got the idea from Dolly Parton’s program. And I don’t think she’d mind her idea being borrowed.

Also for the first time, the Toy Fund will be purchasing all its gifts from Maine stores this year. Primarily it will be ordering toys wholesale from Reny’s (where else?). The fund is also buying handcrafted wooden toys from the Maine State Prison Showroom, which teaches inmates job skills to assist in their reentry into society, keeps them busy and allows them to earn money to buy commissary items. And from Sherman’s Maine Coast Books, which has several locations in Maine. I’ve spent time in most of them as part of the entourage of celebrated local author Julia Spencer-Fleming (A.K.A. my mom). And it’s also getting gifts from Catalyst for Change Wear, a clothing company I hadn’t heard of before the Toy Fund which makes several pairs of leggings that I have put on my own personal Christmas list. This plan means that all the donation money will stay in Maine and help support our economy. Which, let’s be honest, usually needs all the help it can get.

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While the Toy Fund actually accepts donations all year round, this weekend marks the official start of The Holiday Season, when we’re all feeling super sentimental because of the barrage of Christmas carols on the radio. I tear up at “Silver Bells” every time. It’s incredibly effective psychological warfare. It is, traditionally, the season of giving.

And I feel a little bad because I know I’m always pitching various places to donate to my column readers. Donate to a heating fund! Donate to the Toy Fund! Donate a kidney! In my defense, I do put my money where my mouth is. Not as much money as I’d like, since I’m not a rich person and I do have my own bills to pay, but enough to make a little bit of difference, I hope.

And I never know what effects my columns have until they’re out there. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about selling Playboys to benefit the Good Shepherd Food Bank. I was recently contacted by Leo Hallen, owner of Maiden Voyage Booksellers in Kennebunk. It’s a specialty store, focused on maritime and nautical books (if you have an old sea dog in your life who is hard to buy for, call Leo). He’d accidentally acquired seven large boxes filled with vintage Playboy magazines from an estate sale. Since they weren’t exactly nautically themed, he wasn’t sure what to do with them all and asked if I wanted them for my little “buns for buns” operation. I said of course, and once again sent out my mother to pick up a bunch of nudie mags. At least this time I sent her to an actual bookstore, instead of a random parking lot. I’d have done it myself but, post-kidney donation, I wasn’t cleared to drive yet.

We now enter the season of Toy Fund write-ups in the paper. I read every donor’s name and message. It’s one of my favorite parts of the month of December. Because while the rest of the paper is filled with a lot of terrible news, I can look at the list of people who scrounge around in the couch cushions to give a few extra bucks for the joy of buying some kid they’ll never know a Christmas gift. I’m pretty sure Dolly Parton, who grew up dirt-poor in a rural area, would approve of that.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter at @mainemillennial.


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