It is virtually unheard of for a Los Angeles parking garage to be filled to the brim with cars all attempting to exit at once amidst stalled, bumper-to-bumper traffic — all without a single horn being honked and with every driver happy to be there.
But such was the scene in the garage of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels at 7 a.m. Dec. 17, as nearly 2,000 volunteers gathered for the 26th annual “delivery day” for the Adopt-A-Family outreach program, a Christmas gift donation drive benefiting low-income families of Downtown Los Angeles and Skid Row, an event that many Angelenos have come to consider as the start of their Christmas season.
Adopt-A-Family donors and volunteers shop for toys and family gifts based on the specific wishlists of participating children from low-income households and then personally deliver said presents to the assigned families at their respective homes or schools before Christmas. The program was founded in 1990 by Msgr. Terrance Fleming shortly after he became pastor of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral.
“When I first became pastor at St. Vibiana’s, I had the preconceived notion that Downtown L.A. was inhabited primarily by adult ‘street people.’ When I started [at St. Vibiana’s] and walked the streets in the morning, I didn’t realize that I would see so many children getting ready for school,” explains Msgr. Fleming, who now serves as the executive director of the Mission Office for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “And at the time, it was getting close to Christmas, so I was seeing all these kids and thinking about how they’d be getting nothing for Christmas. And I thought, ‘That’s not right.’ As a child, I always had a wonderful, magical Christmas with a tree and presents underneath it Christmas morning, and I wanted these kids to have the same.”
In the program’s inaugural year, Msgr. Fleming pooled his friends and resources together and delivered Christmas presents to 50 different families. Today, that number has blossomed to more than 10 times the original output — this year a record-setting 507 families saw their children receive Christmas gifts. The program’s growth over the past 25 years has come thanks in large part to program coordinator Lydia Gamboa, who, if you ask her about it, will very quickly divert the credit away from herself and heap it onto her staff.
“The program works so well because an astounding number of people are so willing to give of their time and of themselves,” states Gamboa, who is known affectionately in many of Downtown L.A.’s low-income housing districts as “la dama con las cestas,” or “the lady with the baskets.”
“It takes a lot of work and a lot of helping hands,” she continues. “I have an incredible staff, some of whom work from 6 in the morning until 8 at night every night the week of [the event]. It’s truly a group effort.”
Gamboa first became involved with the program in 1991, during its second year, when her son, then a grade school student in the midst of performing community service at St. Vibiana’s, suggested that the whole family become involved. And it didn’t take long for Gamboa to fall in love with the program.
“My husband delivered his first gift that year to a little 4-year-old, who began to cry,” recalls Gamboa. “When I asked her what was wrong, she said, ‘I didn’t know Santa Claus spoke Spanish.’ For me, it was hook, line and sinker from there. I couldn’t do this without my staff, but I also couldn’t do this without my family. At least 40 of my family members are here helping out this year. And my son, who’s 38 years old now, has never missed one.”
“I have become so passionate about getting to make that encounter with the family, see the joy on their faces when you knock on the door and know that they’ll be receiving something so great, not just the gift itself, but the fact behind it that someone spent the time to go out shopping and put so much thought into it,” she adds.
To enable those looks of joy on the faces of children from the most destitute pockets of the downtown area every year, Gamboa and her staff commence the planning phase in early August, working alongside the LAPD and the St. Francis outreach program to identify families suffering from immense financial hardship. Then they interview the parents about their children’s clothing measurements and what they would like for Christmas.
From there, participating donors are assigned a family for which to shop, and during the week of the event they deliver their purchased items to the cathedral parking garage (which is blocked off from the public and converted into the Adopt-A-Family makeshift headquarters for the entire week). Thankfully, the donors throughout the years have been just as enthusiastic about the program as the staff.
“I never have to advertise to bring in donors; it’s all word of mouth, and families sharing with their friends and neighbors what a great experience it is,” says Gamboa. “That’s why I’m so proud of this program.”
And the tremendous passion and generosity evinced by the donors is likewise displayed by the volunteers, which includes people of all ages: high school students in parish confirmation programs, senior citizens and families with young children. Before the sun was even up on Dec. 17, cars were lined up around all sides of the cathedral, driven by people who made the trek from as far away as Santa Barbara, Lancaster and Thousand Oaks. The cathedral was filled nearly to capacity for Archbishop José H. Gomez’s ceremonial blessing of a box of presents before the volunteers dispersed to deliver the hundreds of boxes waiting to be loaded into their cars by Gamboa’s tireless staff in the parking garage.
In keeping with tradition, Archbishop Gomez himself delivered gifts to a family residing in an apartment in which four children were sharing one bed, to St. Patrick’s Church and St. Turibius School. Archbishop Gomez refers to the annual Adopt-A-Family event as one of his happiest days of the year. And when you witness moments such as a 3-year-old girl flashing the widest of smiles as she hugs a new teddy bear that’s bigger than she is, it’s not hard to see why.
“[Adopt-A-Family] reminds us that our Church, which is all of us combined, can come together and spread the news of the Gospel, of loving one another,” states St. Turibius School Principal Victor Serna. “It’s a reminder of the love we carry in our hearts can turn into action.”
“We are so blessed by God to be able to receive these presents,” adds Edwin Bernal, who had tears of joy in his eyes as he watched his 8-year-old son Edwin clutch a new soccer ball, hardly able to contain his excitement. “Being Edwin’s father and having a job where the work has been slow, it makes it hard for me to get Edwin the things he would like for Christmas. So this is a wish come true.”
As exciting as it is for the children to receive the toys, clothes and gear for Christmas, the greatest gift being exchanged, according to both Gamboa and Msgr. Fleming, is the lasting impact that the program has on everyone involved.
“I had a young woman tell me that she used to participate in the program as a student at Bellarmine-Jefferson High School, and now has a family of her own that she wants to continue the tradition with,” says Gamboa. “Some of my volunteers this year included the children from families who had received gifts in the past … and even a few residents of a men’s shelter on Skid Row, who have turned out to be some of the best workers I’ve ever had.”
“One time, I saw a California Highway Patrol car pull up to the garage, sirens blazing, and out steps a tall officer based out of Sacramento,” adds Msgr. Fleming. “He said, ‘You helped me 20 years ago, when I was just a little one. Now I want to help you.’ That’s my favorite thing about this: you get to see these kids grow.”