Until this year, Christmas wasn't an important time for 5-year-old Catalina Francisco. The small apartment she shares with 10 others has no television set to broadcast images of Santa Claus. Her family is too poor to exchange gifts. The only evidence of this year's holiday season was her older sister's drawing of a lopsided Christmas tree, which the girls' mother had taped to the peeling living room wall.
So Catalina Francisco, a dark-haired girl in a clean white dress, stared in disbelief Friday as visitors bearing presents entered the Crenshaw-area apartment. Inside the brightly wrapped boxes were toys, clothes, linens, kitchenware and food. A man carried in a Christmas tree. Two others brought a couch.
Catalina's eyes grew even wider when one of the visitors, a Mrs. Claus wearing a long red, green and white dress, knelt down and handed her a gift. "God bless you," the little girl whispered in Spanish.
Elsewhere in the room other children received presents as their mothers, Menchora Juan, 29, and Petrona Juan, 24, looked on. The women are sisters from Guatemala. They had been chosen this Christmas for the Adopt-a-Family program run by the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest Division. Petrona held a baby who wore an old shirt as a diaper. Another baby slept on the floor in a corner.
Officer Kim Bragg, 26, who administers the program, identifies poverty-stricken families and pairs them with donor groups. Counselors at various schools provide the names of needy families. Most of the donors are law firms.
"This year 27 families are being adopted," Officer Bragg said, "because that's how many groups we have making the gifts. Once I have the name of a family, I visit them to see how bad off they are and what they need. We prefer people who are working and trying to help themselves. If we have a choice between a welfare family and one that's working, we'll take the one that's working."
The Juan sisters work as maids. They provide their own child care by working alternate days. Menchora has five children, 5 months to 13 years. Petrona's four children range from 1 to 8. There are no men in the family.
"When you have as many kids as this, no one with a nice apartment is going to take them even if they had the money," Officer Bragg said. "So they live in a building like this, where the rent is $325 to $395."
Inside the Apartment
The tenement apartment is at the end of a dim corridor. Inside are a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath. The rooms are small, particularly the bedroom, which resembles a large walk-in closet. Dime-size holes disfigure the walls. The kitchen plumbing drips into a plastic bucket. Many tiles are missing from the countertop. All the rooms need painting.
The children, however, look healthy. Only those of school age own shoes, but all wear clean clothes. The mothers do the washing in the bathroom tub. Until the couch and Christmas tree arrived, the only living room furniture was a flimsy chest of drawers.
Now the family not only owns more furnishings and household goods, it also has a fund of $850. Officer Bragg dispenses the money at a rate of $100 a month, giving it in the form of certificates for groceries or for partial payment of rent.
Employees of the Beverly Hills law firm Frandzel & Share collected and delivered the gifts to the Juan sisters. Secretary Sandy Johnston, 43, played the part of Mrs. Santa Claus. In addition to law offices, groups adopting a family this year include a Girl Scout troop, a doctor's office and a computer company. The program was begun in Christmas of 1983 by Officer Bragg and attorney Joan Larkin of the Alschuler, Grossman & Pines law firm in Los Angeles.
Families may receive gifts only once. One of the donor groups collected so much this year, the delivery required a commercial truck and two pickup trucks.
'Toys, Mama, Toys'
"That may sound like too much, but it wasn't," Officer Bragg said. "This family was a mother and 13 kids. Some of the kids had no clothes. The apartment was nothing but empty rooms. The kids were unwrapping presents and shouting, 'Toys, mama, toys,' and the mother stood there crying."
One of last year's recipients was a 73-year-old woman raising her three grandchildren alone. The children's mother had been murdered by a boyfriend and the father deserted soon after. Another was a father and 13 children; the mother had died of cancer at Thanksgiving time.
Officer Bragg said that some of the parents receiving Adopt-a-Family gifts may be in the country illegally.
"But we know that the kids are legal because they were born in this country," she said. "That's as far as we look. If the mothers are illegals, we don't want to cause the kids trouble. Their lives are hard enough already."
As young Catalina Francisco cradled a new doll and looked around the room stacked with presents, she might have disagreed. For a while at least, her life had gotten easier.