The three Vargas kids weren’t looking forward to much of a Christmas two years ago. Their single mom, Teresa Leal, had to give up her job cleaning motel rooms seven days a week near Disneyland because she was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for cervical cancer.
A teacher at the kids’ Santa Ana school connected them with the Adopt A Family program, part of the Share Our Selves organization in Costa Mesa. The program encourages donors to adopt a family at the holidays, providing a holiday meal and a few gifts. First launched in 1969 in founder Jean Forbath’s family room in Costa Mesa, the program is now so big that it has to be coordinated at the Orange County fairgrounds. This year, 1,400 families will be adopted, including 5,000 children.
I’ve followed Share Our Selves and written about it since the 1980s, and it has finally dawned on me that Adopt A Family is not just about the holidays; families in need are often connected with important services afterward.
Juliana Vargas, now 20, doesn’t know the family who came forward to help in 2016; donors and recipients are not supposed to meet. But she figures the donors had connections to Disney, as her family received a day at Disneyland and lunch at Club 33, the members-only
restaurant overlooking the park. Her mom’s holiday wish was to have a nice meal at Disneyland with her kids. Leal spent most of her life working outside the resort but never had the means to take her family there.
The event is one of the fondest memories the kids have of their mother, who died the following year.
I meet some of the Adopt a Family volunteers in a warehouse, where they’ve spent the morning taking inventory of wrapping paper and supplies. Around us, corrugated boxes already contain some of the ingredients for happy holidays for children: Legos, dolls, headphones.
A petite volunteer with close-cropped gray hair and a heart-shaped necklace tells me that some of the struggling families simply tell their children: “There will be no Christmas this year.”
“This program makes a real difference in people’s lives, and I think that difference is hope,” says Sue Epstein, 80, a technology and management consultant who has volunteered for Adopt A Family for 33 years. “It’s the understanding that somebody cares. That life will get better.” Epstein is part of a cadre of 170 volunteers.
Families are allowed to ask for specific gifts, but there are no rules requiring donors to match them exactly. Though the donors never know the families, they are provided with a brief narrative detailing the family’s situation to help them connect.
One family received paid groceries for a year. People drive to the fairgrounds with new strollers, cribs, toys, blankets, socks, and even beds, TVs, and refrigerators. Bicycles are the most commonly requested gift, and there is a team of volunteers from the Orange County Wheelmen who meet to assemble the bikes.
“This program helps the donors, as well,” says Lynn Tomalas of Newport Beach, an administrator at a family law firm who has volunteered for nine years with many members of her family. “On Christmas Day, it is the most meaningful thing in our family. As we’re opening our gifts, we are thinking, ‘Oh, I hope the family we adopted likes the bedding we gave them. I hope they’re finding joy.’ … Once you do this, it becomes something so important in your own life.”
Adds Epstein: “It becomes part of your family tradition.”
When her mother was diagnosed, Juliana Vargas had to abandon her acceptance at her dream school, UC Santa Barbara, and enroll at community college so she could become the de facto mother to her siblings. Her brother, who had been close to his mom and had a stellar school record, began having trouble. Juliana transferred to UC Irvine this fall and says her brother is doing better, which she attributes to the love shown by strangers in the Adopt A Family program.
Volunteers and staff at Share Our Selves are keeping track of the family, helping them after the holidays with transportation expenses, though they still need a car.
“While most kids were going out for the holidays, I was home planning a funeral,” says Juliana, who is holding down a retail job and going to school full time. “But we feel very grateful for everything that we’ve received. It’s inspired me and my brother to want to give back to the community in the future.”
What has always impressed me about Share Our Selves is how the group is able to fulfill specific requests from people in need. While the primary focus today is on medical care, I’ve seen volunteers help people with groceries, vouchers, housing, education, transportation, job training, and legal issues. “Sorry, we don’t offer that” isn’t something you’ll hear from them.
I contributed a few years ago to Adopt A Family by joining with co-workers. Our employer hung the requests on paper ornaments from a tree in the lobby. I only had to buy one gift: a doll. Giving that doll added the spirit to my holidays.
“In Orange County, there’s a culture of people who truly believe it’s their moral responsibility to support an agency like ours,” says Karen McGlinn, executive director and a founding member of Share Our Selves. “There are enough people here who believe that a community flourishes by caring for everyone in that community. There’s a generosity here that’s wonderful.”
How to help
If you would like to make a donation or adopt a family, call 949-270-2187 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those who adopt four families or more are scheduled to drop off gifts at the fairgrounds Dec. 17 and 18 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Donors adopting one to three families are scheduled to drop off gifts Dec. 19 from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.