Valerie fell behind on her phone bill because of health care expenses that shot up after a sudden illness.

Ramona, new to the country after Hurricane Maria destroyed her home Puerto Rico, was struggling to create a comfortable place for her children here.

Lexie needed help making a mortgage payment after she had to miss work to care for a mentally ill son.

The three women are only a few of the thousands of South Shore residents helped by Patriot Ledger readers since 1988.

Lend a Hand, The Patriot Ledger’s holiday fundraiser, has raised nearly $3 million over the past 21 years, thanks to the generosity of its readers.

The campaign is different from other holiday appeals because 100 percent of donations go directly to partner aid agencies, South Shore Community Action Council Inc., Quincy Community Action Programs and South Shore Mental Health. (The only exception is a small fee charged by credit card companies.) The Ledger and its employees donate all of the time and resources, from news coverage to accounting services to website support. Not a penny has ever gone to staff or other overhead.

Starting today, the paper is asking for help again. Readers can give online via the paper’s secure website, tear a coupon from the paper and mail it in, or call the partner agencies directly.

Readers can also write a check, donate through PayPal or call Ansaphone in Quincy, which is donating its services again this year, at 617-424-9825. Readers can choose to honor a loved one with a donation, a great holiday gesture. The Ledger will publish donors’ names and those they are honoring in the newspaper and on our website.

Some of the first Lend a Hand recipients were a set of grandparents who needed help with the expense of gaining custody of their three grandchildren and a Quincy father and carpenter who had been out of work for months following a fall from a roof.

Beth Ann Strollo, chief executive officer of Quincy Community Action Programs said Lend a Hand donations have helped struggling families with car repairs and bills. For someone on a low or fixed income, a small setback can quickly become a major problem, she said.

“The (donations) could help interrupt the path from a car breakdown to homelessness,” Strollo said.“It makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”

Many Lend a Hand recipients faced hard times because of an unexpected health issue that put them out of work.

“People can face a situation where they have virtually no income,” Strollo said. “The worst thing for people is the pressure of losing housing when they are trying to deal with a health issue.”

Lend a Hand raised more than $118,000 from donations last year, bring the 20-year total to a shade under $2.95 million.

“The money from the fundraiser helps with basic needs. It helps people get through that little bump in their lives said Jack Cocio, chief executive at South Shore Community Action Council.

Cocio said that Lend A Hand funds are particularly helpful because they can be used for anything. Most agency funding sources are for specific purposes, such as fuel or housing assistance.

“Lend A Hand is flexible funding we can more readily use to help the needs of individuals because there aren’t strings attached,” Cocio said. “One hundred percent of it goes to the people in need.”

Cocio said the rising cost of rents in the area have families his agency helps struggling to come up with money for other essential needs.

Janice Sullivan, executive director of business and community relations for South Shore Mental Health, said Lend A Hand donations can help some of her agency’s clients enter the workforce by helping to buy clothes for an interview.

“With the money we can at least take that worry away, about having the right clothes for an interview.” Sullivan said.

She said she was touched by the amount of participation the program has seen.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of the community to help the most vulnerable,” Sullivan said.

The 2018 season is the 21st year that the Ledger’s charitable program has helped clients from Quincy Community Action, South Shore Community Action Council in Plymouth and South Shore Mental Health in Quincy with donations from Ledger readers and others.

Since 1998 Lend A Hand has raised $2.8 million and helped thousands of women, men and children.