The Spirit of Giving

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Danny (left) and Jane Shea receive an Adopt-A-Family Award from the program’s founder, Monsignor Terrance Fleming.

Now that it is the second week of January, holiday stress is officially over. There will be no more worrying about what gifts to buy, what dishes to serve at parties or how all the gifts will get wrapped until the end of November rolls around, and it all starts over again.

Last year, while some families fretted over what to gift their significant others, many families in downtown Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods did not get to experience the magic of the holiday season. In fact, some of these families have never experienced it.

“A lot of [the families] live in single rooms where the restrooms and kitchens are shared with neighbors in the apartment,” Topanga resident and Our Lady of Malibu (OLM) member Danny Shea shared. “You have four or more people — an entire family — living in one room. Almost all of the children have never experienced Christmas because the families just don’t have the finances to do it.”

The Shea family — Danny and Jane — have worked with the Adopt-A-Family program for the past 25 years to bring holiday magic to hundreds of struggling families in the Los Angeles Skid Row and downtown areas. The program was created by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, located in downtown Los Angeles, to help bring the Christmas spirit to families in need.

Danny, a retired 36-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, first got involved in 1986 when OLM was assisting the cathedral with the Adopt-A-Family program.

“I started using my truck to take donations from Our Lady of Malibu to the cathedral downtown,” Danny explained. “I got more and more involved in my days off. I would go down there at eight in the morning and see how I could help with my pickup truck. They had a lot of pickups.” 

Danny explained that many of the families living in downtown LA neighborhoods like Skid Row are working poor, and many children living there have no idea what Christmas is.

Jane, a retired orthodontist office manager, explained some of the volunteer work they do.

“We collect donations from people’s homes, schools and from businesses,” she said. “We’ll go to parochial schools after they have a food drive and collect their donations as well. From there, we stockpile them in the church downtown.”

Although this program is seasonal, if there was a dire need, families can contact the church in order to receive additional donations. This function is curtailed due to limited supplies because of the lack of storage space at the church.

Lydia Gamboa, director of the Mission Office of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and program coordinator of the Adopt-A-Family program, started with a small part, but has since become heavily involved as well.

“I’ve been involved with the program for over 23 years,” Gamboa shared. “It’s funny, but I was first involved by gift wrapping for the program and then later, they needed someone who can type, and now I’m the program director.” 

Gamboa explained that teams of volunteers go out and interview families to collect information, including living conditions, the size of families and their needs in order to generate a list of families eligible for the program. Referrals also come from local law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, when they come into contact with a family in need. Each family will then generate a wish-list, and then typically each family will receive between three to four boxes of gifts and two boxes of food. 

“The only question we ask is if they have children under the age of 18, if they are still going to school and living in their household,” Gamboa explained.

The program first started with about 80 families and has since expanded to serve 503, according to Gamboa. In 2015, the program had a fleet of between 250-300 vehicles that volunteers brought in for donation pickups and delivery. 

For the 25th anniversary of the program, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles awarded the Sheas with an official Adopt-A-Family award for service and they were made official angels of the program.

“The Sheas are always so giving,” Gamboa said. “They’re always the first car to drive out on delivery day. We’re all so extremely grateful for all the volunteers giving their time and money to help out families in need without asking anything in return.”

The Sheas selfless work doesn’t end after the holidays — they’re also involved with the Malibu Community Labor Exchange and SOS, an organization that feeds the homeless in Malibu. The Sheas went on a trip with a mission they are involved with to Tijuana, Mexico on Jan. 9 where they planned to feed about 400 people and deliver Christmas gifts.