Juan Manuel was just settling in with two of his four kids after working a graveyard shift at a local freezer warehouse, when there was a sudden knock at their apartment door.

At the door were Msgr. Terrance Fleming and Auxiliary Bishop Matthew Elshoff, with volunteers hauling dozens of donated gifts following close behind.

Manuel said he works long hours to make ends meet, but after paying for food, rent, and bills, he doesn’t have much left for holiday purchases. Knowing that strangers united to provide his kids with likely the only presents they’ll receive this year fills him with gratitude and helps restore his faith in humanity, he said.

“I’m very surprised that there is still a community out there that wants to help,” he said, “because nowadays, you don’t see that anymore. That’s what we all need sometimes, just that little helping hand.”

The Manuels were one of the 456 families that received food, clothes, toys, gift cards, household goods, and Christmas gifts this year through Adopt-a-Family, an outreach program of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that serves more than 1,000 children annually and has assisted more than 13,000 families since its inception.

What started as a simple toy giveaway organized by Fleming at the Cathedral of St. Vibiana 33 years ago has blossomed into an annual tradition that gives much-needed support to low-income families living in and around the cathedral boundaries, supported by individuals, schools, parishes, businesses, and other groups across the community.

It’s an opportunity for the area’s mother church to minister to the less fortunate and share the love of Christ with others, said Fleming, executive director of the archdiocese’s Pontifical Mission Societies.

“What better time than Christmas?” he said. “Jesus is born, there’s new life.”

Just over 1,000 volunteers of all ages — donning maroon T-shirts emblazoned with “Adopt-A-Family” on the front and white angel wings on the back — gathered at the cathedral in the early morning hours of Dec. 16 for a prayer service before fanning out across downtown Los Angeles and Skid Row to deliver the goods.

Cathedral parishioner Vincent Rodriguez was among those who arrived just before dawn for the group send-off. Rodriguez said his family received charitable support from the church when he was a child and sees this effort as a way to pay it forward.

“They used to give to us and now we get to give back,” said Rodriguez, who has volunteered for the past 15 years. “It’s a great blessing for us.”

While many volunteers helped deliver the items, scores more helped behind the scenes by interviewing prospective participants and purchasing, wrapping, and sorting the gifts.

Kayry Gonzalez, a volunteer for the past 12 years, is among those who interviewed program applicants. She said she’s often touched by their personal stories and feels privileged to be in a space where they open up to her about their lives. 

Distribution day is especially exciting for her, she said, because of the goodwill that abounds between volunteers and recipients.

“You kind of feel like Santa a little bit,” she said, giggling. “Because you feel like you have an unlimited supply of people behind you, of gifts to give out. It’s a good feeling.”

Timothy Grayson is among those who helped organize donations for delivery. Grayson, who works for Homeboy Industries, said he’s thankful to be able to play a role in bringing a sparkle to a child’s eyes this Christmas. 

Grayson said he was previously incarcerated, and that through volunteerism, he’s learning how to serve others and pay back society for his past transgressions.

“I get to experience a new life for giving, instead of always taking,” he said, gazing out over the thousands of gifts in the cathedral parking garage that were set to be distributed later that morning.

Msgr. Terrance Fleming, center, and LA Auxiliary Bishop Matthew Elshoff, right, pose with the Crispino family after delivering gifts and other items as part of the Adopt-a-Family program. (Victor Alemán)

Program coordinator Lydia Gamboa said preparations for the annual gift distribution start in mid-August, when volunteers begin interviewing prospective participants about their needs and living situations.

Organizers said many of the participating households are run by single parents who live with multiple children and family members in crowded one-unit or one-bedroom quarters.

Gamboa said the program is especially needed at this time, when many people are still trying to get back on their feet after the COVID-19 pandemic and are struggling to pay for rent or utilities. In addition, many of this year’s recipients have experienced the sudden loss of a parent, spouse or child due to illness, she said.

A rewarding part of the effort is hearing from recipients who said they would not have been able to celebrate Christmas as a family had it not been for the program’s support, she said.

“To know that we brought that to them is very satisfying,” she said.

Many of this year’s recipients echoed that sentiment, thanking God for their benefactors’ generosity when Elshoff, Fleming, and program volunteers appeared at their doorstep bringing Christmas tidings and donated gifts.

At one modest apartment building in the shadow of downtown high-rises, a mother happily accepted a shipment of presents on behalf of her children who were out of town visiting a sick relative, and presented volunteers with a bouquet of flowers as a token of her appreciation.

A few doors down, teen Emma Crispino beamed with pride while posing for a photo with her parents, five siblings, and the clergymen after receiving presents and Christmas blessings.

“I feel amazing because my family can barely afford gifts and knowing that the church gives it to us is nice,” she said.

Back at the Manuel apartment, Juan Manuel pointed out that while he doesn’t have funds for a Christmas tree or decorations this year, he is resting easier knowing that donors are graciously fulfilling his kids’ requests for Spider-Man and Hello Kitty toys.

“I’m just surprised and thankful,” Manuel said. “Everything is just so expensive right now. This is such a relief.”