About 1,800 area children will unwrap gifts they might not otherwise have received this Sunday morning, thanks to a local non-profit that has quietly been working behind the scenes for the last 15 years making sure underprivileged children get their Christmas wish.

A Christmas for Kids raised $52,000 this year to buy 3,700 gifts, including brand new bicycles, warm jackets and dolls.

"They're fulfilling the wishes of children who might not have much or anything at all," said Ruby Pardella, office manager at Old Adobe Elementary School, where some students benefit each year from A Christmas for Kids.

Pulling it off took months of planning, a fundraiser dinner and a host of volunteers, but the project grew from a simple seed: The idea that a local couple could use its skill in making delicious food to raise money for kids.

As Petaluma natives raising their own family in Petaluma, Jim and Nancy Braga often thought they'd like to help spread Christmas cheer to local children. But they found they didn't have the time while each working day jobs, running a catering business on the side and raising their two daughters.

Then, about 15 years ago, the Bragas retired from their catering business. At Christmas time, over drinks with old employees and friends, Jim Braga came up with the idea that the couple could use its catering and event planning skills to throw a party, raise lots of money and use the proceeds to buy gifts for kids.

A Christmas for Kids "was born from an idea that a few ordinary every-day people could gather their resources, pool their talents and come together to raise enough money to give a few local kids a nice Christmas," said Nancy Braga.

The first year, A Christmas for Kids raised $9,000 through an elaborate fundraiser dinner with live music and a multi-course meal the Bragas cooked up, enough to buy gifts for 200 children. The Bragas and their friends worked with the local schools' food services employees, who Jim knew through his day job as a food salesman, to identify families that could use help. The children in those families put together a Christmas wish list, with items ranging from bicycles to Barbie dolls to simply a new pair of clothes.

Each year, dozens of volunteers from Petaluma schools converge for one massive day of shopping in early December to buy all the gifts. Shoppers aren't limited to a certain amount per child — "The idea is to give kids their wish," said Jim Braga. Many of the same people — teachers, parents and other school staff — have been helping for all 15 years.

Pardella has been helping to connect A Christmas for Kids with needy families at Old Adobe Elementary since the beginning. She said a group of parents has been volunteering for the last six years to help with the shopping and gift wrapping, looking forward to it each year. For some of the parents, their children have already left the school, but they return to help anyway.

Jim Braga recalled one shopping event that summed up what motivates him: A young teacher was at the checkout line at Kmart, where all the shopping takes place, with tears in her eyes. When asked why she was crying, she said that she had asked one of her students what he wanted for Christmas, and he'd simply requested a pair of pants. He only had one pair, and he wanted another so that his mother didn't have to wash them every day. When the teacher asked what he would ask for if could have anything he wanted, he said it would be a bike — but he'd just take the pants to help his mother.

As the teacher was standing in the checkout line with the pants for the boy, she noticed another Christmas For Kids shopper nearby purchasing a bicycle with the boy's name on it. She began to cry when she realized he'd get his wish.

"That's what we get out of it," said Jim Braga with a smile at his and Nancy's Petaluma home, which is bedecked in Christmas cheer.

Over the years, as the non-profit was able to raise more and more money through its fundraiser, it expanded beyond Petaluma to schools in Sonoma and Santa Rosa, seeking schools that other programs like the Rotary Clubs couldn't service. About 50 abused and neglected children in the Court Appointed Special Advocates Program also receive gifts through A Christmas for Kids each year.

"The program is pretty amazing," said Millie Gilson, executive director for the Sonoma County CASA. She added that A Christmas for Kids is one of CASA's biggest holiday donors.

Throwing such an event is not easy, said the Bragas, both in their 60s. Next year, they plan to swap the fundraising gala for steady fundraising efforts throughout the year and will seek donations from community members and local businesses as well as grants in the hopes of raising about $50,000.

Throwing the gala costs about $13,000, said Jim Braga, money that must be recouped before collecting funds for gifts can begin. By fundraising without the big event, the couple says much more money will go directly to buying kids presents.

The couple is hoping to give the non-profit a more public profile than its had in previous years, when a relatively small group of friends and supporters came together to raise the needed funds.

"We want to say, &‘OK, world, here we are," said Jim Braga.

For information and to donate, contact the Bragas at 762-5252 or address a letter to 33 Melinda Lane, Petaluma, 94952.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)