Free Christmas trees spread holiday cheer in Los Angeles

Cayetano Hernandez holds a Christmas tree in his lap that he and his family chose at a giveaway by the Delancey Street Foundation.
(Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times)

A Christmas tree is a luxury if you’re not working steadily, if you’re stretching just to pay the rent and keep your children fed.

Cayetano Hernandez, 50, works as a pool plasterer, which he can’t do in the rain.


It’s rained so much and he’s earned so little of late that without giveaways, his children — Wendy, 12, and Eric, 3 — wouldn’t have opened any Christmas presents.

An East Hollywood church gave his girl makeup, anti-acne cleanser, toothpaste and perfume, and gave his little boy toy cars and a big teddy bear. The family also took home a flier offering a tree to call their own.

So at 8:30 a.m. in the drizzle of a gray Christmas Eve morning, mom Maria, 45, Dad and the two kids stood outside a gate on Riverside Drive in Los Feliz at the front of a line of about two dozen people.

A half hour later, the gate opened onto a lot full of trees, tiny to tall, and all free. The Hernandezes could have their pick.

They gratefully embraced a humble runt of a fir that barely poked up past Wendy’s shoulders.

Then someone handed Wendy a sparkle-haired Ariel doll and gave Eric a ramp on which to race his cars. And Santa and his reindeers swept into view on a float atop a flatbed truck.

The air was full of the spice of balsam and the cheer of Christmas music. “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus.” The Hernandez parents seemed to visibly unkink.

That clearly pleased the crew from the Delancey Street Foundation, which each Christmas Eve gives away the trees left on its six L.A. lots.

Those at Delancey Street say that because they have needed help themselves, they appreciate the chance to provide it.

Several said they had hit rock bottom before slowly starting to scrape their way up from it.

Most are former substance abusers who have done long stints behind bars. The foundation gives them a chance to right their lives if they commit to at least two years. That means living together in the foundation’s Vermont Avenue facility and laboring together at its endeavors: taking and teaching GED classes, catering and working as movers and — at this time of year — decorating and selling Christmas trees.

No one has to pay for room or board. No one gets paid for work. The profits keep the foundation running. And the hope is that those who stick it out learn skills and strategies to build positive futures.

“Delancey Street is where you go to change your life,” said Martin Anderson, 39, a.k.a Santa, who has been in and out of prison since he was 22 and who came to the program four years ago, when he was facing 16 years for identity theft and credit card fraud.

“You start to understand what you’ve been doing, that instead of taking and hurting you can actually help.”

On Monday morning, Anderson and his co-workers helped an eclectic bunch.

Louise Stone of Silver Lake said she’d come on behalf of her 14-year-old cat. She said she’d forgone Christmas last year after her beloved Sierra died at 17, but she didn’t want to disappoint her surviving baby — who is black with white whiskers and loves the holiday.

“Oh, she’s waiting,” Stone said of Tinkerbell. “I told her where I was going.”

For the ninth year running, Debora Kapersky, 54, came with her daughters Oleana, 11, and Nadia, 14, to fetch trees for their Ukranian Orthodox church. “We’re old calendar orthodox, Julian calendar,” she explained. “We wait until now to get trees because they have to last. Our Christmas Eve isn’t until Jan. 6.”

Of the many people who showed up before the lot started shutting down about 10:30 a.m. none seemed more grateful than Rouget Brione, 73.

The retired actor and cameraman said he’d been driving by when he saw people lined up and pulled over.

For the last 20 years, ever since his parents died, he hasn’t celebrated Christmas, he said. They were the glue in his family. “When they passed away, I assumed the tradition went with them.”

The ornaments gathered dust in the garage while he sat around “just kind of feeling sorry for myself.”

On Monday, a block of ice seemed to break up inside him as he prepared to take home a wreath and a tree.

“This makes me feel very, very happy,” Brione said. “It’s like a new day in my life. I’m a newborn kid.”

Speaking of kids, he said he’s long been estranged from his. He has a son in Sacramento who turns 47 on Christmas Day. They speak on the phone a few times a year.

Standing in the lot, Brione’s eyes filled with tears.

He said he decided right then to set up the tree in the morning and set out for Sacramento at night.

“A new leaf has turned over and it all started in this lot. It was what I needed. Thank God, I got it.”

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