After a tiring day of work as a construction day laborer, a weary Aurelio (last name withheld by request) was looking forward to seeing his wife Maria and their five children in their small, cramped apartment in downtown L.A.

But the sight that greeted him when the door opened made his eyes pop with confusion, and later made his heart swell with gratitude: the joyful faces of his entire family surrounded by an avalanche of gifts in their tiny living room, all thanks to Adopt-A-Family.

“I was incredulous. I knew they said they were going to help us, but we didn’t know they were going to give us so much,” he later said of Adopt-A-Family, an archdiocesan outreach program coordinated by the Mission Office that provides gifts of household essentials and longed-for presents to hundreds of struggling local families with children every December. “We just thank God that it was true.”

“My kids were so happy to receive so many presents, everything they had asked for,” continued Aurelio, a native of Mexico. “I’ve lived here in the U.S. for almost 15 years and I had never experienced anything like this. We are ending this year on a positive note. Thank you to everyone who made this a happy Christmas for us.”

The 2013 Adopt-A-Family “delivery day” began at 7 a.m. on Dec. 14 with a prayer service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where Archbishop José Gomez blessed gifts slated for delivery. Volunteers then loaded boxes brimming with gifts into cars and trucks and transported them to the families --- many, like Aurelio, likely unaware of the magnitude of the gifts they were about to receive.

Felicidades --- Merry Christmas to you all,” said Archbishop Gomez as he greeted the first adoptive family he met with during his own morning deliveries. He helped pass out gifts to the shy, smiling children, spoke with them about their Christmas wishes, spent a few minutes speaking with the parents, and bestowed a blessing upon the entire family before departing for his next scheduled delivery.

This year the program helped 463 needy families with children --- more than 1,800 kids altogether --- residing in some of the poorest neighborhoods of downtown L.A. with substantial donations of much-needed items for each household, such as food, clothing, toiletries and school supplies, and  requested gifts for every boy and girl.

Every year, program leaders begin finding local needy families during the late summer by targeting select apartment buildings and going door-to-door. Staff and volunteers then conduct in-person interviews with the low-income families they meet to assess their household needs and the Christmas wishes of each child.

Those wishes are filled thanks to the generous gift and monetary donations of individuals, families, schools, and/or local companies, and the hands-on work of hundreds of volunteers from all corners of the archdiocese, who conduct the interviews, wrap the presents, and help distribute the goods on delivery day.

Long-time volunteer Jorge Mazza, a parishioner at St. Timothy Church, Los Angeles, described Adopt-A-Family as “very rewarding outreach,” adding that he is drawn to help with the program every year to “give back what little I have.”

“It’s a joy to meet and get to know the families,” said Mazza, who helps conduct in-home interviews with the families beginning in August. “We’ve been in places where three or more families share one or two rooms and help is really needed.”

The Adopt-A-Family program was established 23 years ago by Msgr. Terrance Fleming, and has grown from 10 adoptive families the first year to nearly 500.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you to all the volunteers --- the ones here today and all those who have done so much,” said Msgr. Fleming, founder and director of Adopt-A-Family, at the morning prayer service with participating volunteers.

“The generosity of people is unbelievable,” he continued. “When I see all those boxes with presents, each one wrapped with care and love, my heart is just bursting with joy. It’s just such a wonderful day. We’re proud of all our donors and volunteers.”

For Lydia Gamboa, associate director for both the Mission Office and Adopt-a-Family, the program has been a blessing in her life, a passion shared by her entire family, including her son Michael, her husband, brother, nieces and many others.

“That’s our family Christmas; we don’t do anything until we do Adopt-A-Family, and everybody has their specific jobs that they are great at,” she said. “The families we serve are hard-working people who just want to make a better life for their children. They want the same things that I wanted for my own son, like a good education. They want the best for their kids, just like everybody else.”

One of the kids who will have a brighter Christmas this year is Aurelio’s oldest daughter, 11-year-old Heidi, who received an arts and crafts set, a curling iron, a hairdryer and many other items that made her eyes light up when the archbishop arrived to distribute the gifts to her and her younger siblings that morning.

“I’m so thankful,” said the 6th grader with a bashful smile. “We’re so happy.”