For a few frantic hours, a two-story Wilmington house that shelters homeless mothers and needy families seemed destined to face a Christmas as tough as its neighborhood.
Just before dawn on Dec. 7, thieves entered the back yard of the shelter and made off with $2,200 worth of food and toys. Gone in just minutes were items that had taken months to collect--170 toys and enough food to sustain 70 families for a week.
"I just felt numb," said Lety Dominguez, who directs the shelter and discovered the break-in of its storage shed, located along a graffiti-scarred alley.
"I could understand them taking the food, even clothes," she said. "But to take the toys, that is just plain ugly."
Today, however, the four-room shelter run by Dieter Charities is once again ready for Christmas. Thanks to a flurry of recent donations, its front porch is decorated with large dolls, the living room is filled with toys, and its back yard is busy with volunteers organizing gifts near a newly planted Christmas tree.
"People have been so nice and tender" said Dominguez, a short, sturdy woman with warm eyes and a friendly smile. "They have been answering our need."
Immediately after the burglary, it seemed that the need was insurmountable for the shelter, which opened three years ago and is financed through veterinarian Francis Dieter's All Life Veterinary Clinic in Harbor City.
With a steady stream of poor families and homeless mothers flowing every day to the shelter, it looked for a time as if it would be hard-pressed to handle its regular programs, let alone sponsor a special event for Christmas.
But as word of the break-in spread through the neighborhood and among regular supporters of the program, the donations of food, clothes and toys poured in. And by last week, according to Dieter, the shelter had almost collected in two weeks what it earlier took months to obtain.
"I think we will be rescued," Dieter said. "I have faith in people and the way things are going."
Many of the donations of food, clothes and toys came once again from St. Lawrence Church in Redondo Beach, where Dieter is a deacon, and from students at Torrance's Bishop Montgomery High School, who sometimes serve as volunteers at the shelter.
But after the burglary, according to Dieter and Dominguez, donations also came from many businesses and individuals who had never before contributed. And among that group, they said, were some Wilmington residents, including children, who either live on the economic brink or decided to donate their own Christmas gifts to others.
"We have one very old couple who live in a trailer. They are on a fixed income, but they wanted to contribute," Dominguez said. "And we have had little girls who have come in to give their own favorite toys.
"In the middle of this misery, it has been like a blessing to see how much people care."
Dominguez said she has no idea who stole the food and toys from the shed. Neither do police, according to Detective Howard Tanner of the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Division.
"We have not had too many clues," Tanner said.
He added that police have received a tip that an old Nissan or Toyota pickup truck, its rear bed filled with Christmas packages and food, was spotted after the burglary in downtown Wilmington. Tanner said police are searching for the faded yellow truck, with a black tailgate and a broken right tail light.
"We are really anxious to solve this one," Tanner said.
In the meantime, Dieter, Dominguez and the shelter's volunteers are getting ready for Christmas, preparing 12-pound bags of groceries and other bags of toys for distribution.
"Sometimes you get to the point where you think nobody cares," Dominguez said. "But with the response (since the burglary), I am feeling so warm about this Christmas."