When the archbishop’s office called and said that the archbishop wanted to see me my first thought was: “Oh no, what did I do now!” After 30 years with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, I knew all about the Cardinal’s Award, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a recipient.

After the shock and surprise wore off, I asked myself, “Why me?” For me, the opportunity to serve others through the Adopt-A-Family program was a privilege in itself. When you absolutely love what you do and it becomes your life and your passion — that is truly a great gift. What more could anyone ask out of life?

I came to embrace this award, however, when I recognized that I would be accepting it on behalf of the Adopt-A-Family staff, the volunteers and donors who give so much of themselves and, most importantly, on behalf of the families whom we serve. 

It is in these families that I have seen the face of Christ. As it says in the Scriptures, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” For me, that has been the privilege — to be welcomed in the homes of families who open their lives to us and allow us to see their challenges and their hopes and dreams. I always felt they gave me more than what we gave to them. Each family with whom we meet has an important story to tell, and their willingness to make themselves vulnerable by sharing the details of their struggles is a precious gift.

Over the years, we have been blessed to become extended family to so many of these wonderful people. My husband and I have been to birthday parties in the hallways of an apartment building on Skid Row. We have attended a quincea√±era in a downtown alley. We have been invited to school graduations and received phone calls letting us know that a child was accepted into college. When a tragedy or special occasion occurs, they call our office to tell us. What begins as an encounter becomes a relationship. 

Each year, we meet new families and become reacquainted with others, and I feel deeply blessed as I see the face of Jesus in each one of them. It is hard to explain what it feels like when you ask a child what he or she would like for Christmas and, in response, be asked if you could bring a box of cereal. As you look into the eyes of a mother who was recently laid off work and has no idea how she will feed herself and her child, you know that God has put you in the right place. Last year I am so proud that we were able to help 503 families with gifts, food and, most importantly, with the love from their brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is that group — the Adopt-A-Family staff, volunteers, donors and all who have participated for over a quarter of a century — that share this award. 

Msgr. Terrance Fleming: As founder of Adopt-A-Family, you had a vision of providing a magical Christmas for the families living in the economically challenged neighborhoods surrounding St. Vibiana’s Cathedral. You have accomplished that vision and more. Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” You, Msgr. Fleming, are the stone, cast into the waters of Downtown L.A. and Skid Row, and all of us — the volunteers and donors — are the ripples of your vision. Thank you so much for that vision, love and all that you do to make me a better person.

I would also like to thank the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the priests, staff and especially Brother Hilarion O’Connor, OSF, who warmly welcome and take care of us and our office. 

To my son, Michael — it was your Christian service hours in elementary school that brought us to Adopt-A-Family 24 years ago, and for the past 24 years you have never missed a delivery day. And, more importantly, you have made the Adopt-A-Family program an integral part of your own life. I’ve seen you grow to be as passionate about this program as your dad and I are. Thank you for always keeping me laughing when things get crazy and reminding me that you are one of my greatest accomplishments.

And to my amazing husband Mike — you are my rock, always believing in me and cheering me on. Thank you for giving up home cooked meals every Tuesday and Thursday night during the months of August through October while we are out doing interviews with the families and enduring, without a single complaint, take-out and delivery food during the entire month of December. You give so much of yourself to keep me going. Thank you for loving me and caring for me — you and Michael are my heart.  

Again, on behalf of all who serve to bring the spirit of Christmas to our brothers and sisters in the downtown and Skid Row neighborhoods, I thank you and close with the words of Tiny Tim in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: “God bless us, everyone.”

Lydia Gamboa was honored last month at the 2016 Cardinal’s Awards Dinner. She serves as associate director of the Adopt-a-Family program and the archdiocesan Mission Office.