When Veronica Bueno heard from her sister-in-law that “there were people from the Cathedral” interviewing families to give away Christmas gifts, she was hesitant.

“What? They are going to give us presents?” she asked, stunned that complete strangers were willing to give them gifts, or that they were generous enough to ask what kind of gifts they wanted or needed.

Veronica, a homemaker, and her husband Ignacio, a factory worker, could barely afford a few Christmas gifts for their three daughters. But when they realized that it was true --- that the Adopt-A-Family staff and volunteers were combing the streets where they lived in downtown Los Angeles, asking families to enroll in the program through a short survey --- they were pleasantly surprised and thankful, and happy that their daughters would have a very joyous Christmas.

It has now been six years since Lydia Gamboa, head coordinator of Adopt-A-Family (an outreach program of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, coordinated by the archdiocesan Mission Office), first visited the Bueno family at their one-room unit on San Pedro Street. This year it will be the last.

Today, the family of five has moved a few blocks down the street to a one-bedroom apartment, where they have their own kitchen and bathroom. For nine years they shared those “amenities” with three other families of four or five members each.

“It was hard,” says Veronica, who migrated from Mexico with her husband together with their two oldest daughters in search of a better future.

Almost 15 years later, the oldest of the three daughters, Claudia, 19, has started her freshman year at UCLA (she is the first college attendee in her immediate and extended family). Middle daughter Jovanna, 15, is a sophomore at Lincoln High School. The youngest, Angela, 12, is in her last elementary school year.

It was a joy, they agree, to know that some people were “thinking of you and wanted to help you out making sure you had a good holiday.”

The girls still keep a collection of Bratz dolls and Winnie-the-Pooh bears they asked their adopted families for throughout the years, as well as some of the back packs they received, now empty of the school supplies they carried.

“These were really helpful,” said Veronica, as she lifted one of the empty back packs one of her daughters received last year.

In one small corner in the house, the girls keep a shelf full of books, all of them gifts from their adopted families.

“I love reading, so as I grew older I asked for books and board games,” says Claudia, adding that after Gamboa left their home that first time the family was interviewed to join the program, she was somewhat dubious.

“I thought it wasn’t real and wasn’t really expecting it to happen, but the day we received the gifts I thought, ‘How could these people be so nice to give all these gifts to complete strangers?’”

Among other gifts, the family received complete sets of bed sheets that they still keep, and boxes of food, as well as three Christmas stockings with the girls’ first initials, that adorn one of the walls in their small apartment.

“There are people out there who have genuine hearts and like to help the less fortunate,” said Claudia.

This year she asked for school supplies, bed sheets for her dorm at UCLA and “other essentials.” Her younger sisters still asked for a few toys, a hair straightener and drawing supplies.

And as a way of giving back, their mother Veronica said they support the program Together in Mission at their home church, St. Joseph in Los Angeles.

“We are really appreciative for what other people have done for us, so it’s always good to help someone else,” she says. “There’s always someone who has less than you.”

This year 456 families will be adopted by the 23-year-old Adopt-A-Family outreach program which has made it possible for thousands of struggling families with children to have an unforgettable Christmas. Throughout September and October, the Adopt-A-Family volunteers meet with the families to identify their individual needs.

This Saturday, more than 300 volunteers (from different parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and surrounding dioceses, schools and private companies) will return to the homes with food, toiletries, blankets, books, school supplies, baby care items and clothing for the entire family.

Volunteers are welcome to participate, beginning at 6:30 a.m. with a short prayer service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where baskets will be blessed by Archbishop José Gomez. Then trucks loaded with gift boxes (and volunteers) will make the deliveries.

For more information about About-A-Family, call the archdiocesan Mission Office, (213) 637-7501, or AAF Office at Cathedral (213) 680-8766, or email [email protected].