(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)
People in churches across America will add an extra child’s name to their personal gift list this year to help heal the pain of separation these children experience. Prison Fellowship’s “Angel Tree” program will reach more than 500,000 of the two million children this holiday season.
In addition to Christmas care, the year-round “Angel Tree” helps children with necessary school supplies, mentoring and camping programs. Mary Kay Beard, who served part of a 22-year sentence for burglary, grand larceny and robbery, started the program in 1982. Beard saw female prisoners gather soap, shampoo and toothpaste they received from charitable groups to give to their children as Christmas gifts.
“I realized that children don’t care as much about things as they do about being loved,” said Beard. “When kids receive a Christmas gift from a parent who’s away, they know that they are loved and remembered, even if they can’t be together.”
Prisoners sign up for their children to receive Christmas gifts given by Angel Tree volunteers. Angel Tree volunteers then contact caregivers of the children to solicit their gift wish lists. Gift wishes are written on paper angels and hung on Christmas trees placed in participating churches. Volunteers purchase and wrap the items and either delivers the gifts in person to the child’s home, or host a community Christmas party where the gifts are distributed.
“Seeing a family sometimes restored from a life of drugs, homelessness and despair through the Angel Tree program continually awes and amazes me,” said Charles Colson, chairman of the board of Prison Fellowship.
The Angel Tree program “puts into perspective some of the things I deal with at home,” said Dan Wilson, all-star catcher for the Seattle Mariners. “My kids are without a dad for three months during baseball season, and that can be tough on them. I know these kids of prisoners are without parents for a lot longer that than, and I see the effect it has on my kids when I’m gone.”
Often called the forgotten victims of crime, these children are the most severely at-risk children in America. They are at risk for child abuse and neglect, illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, violence, incarceration and premature death.
“Angel Tree is now a year-round program because the need to be loved doesn’t end with the Christmas season,” said Beard.
To date, 3.5 million children have received 5.5 million Angel Tree gifts nationwide. Approximately 27 percent of all children of incarcerated parents in the U.S. annual receive gifts through the program.
In 1999, more than 13,000 churches across the country delivered 481,029 gifts to needy children. In 2000, those numbers increased to 14,492 churches and 591,187 gifts.
“We need to break the curse that’s over young people with kids shooting kids,” said Rev. Tom Harris, Jr., an ex-prisoner and Angel Tree program coordinator. “I hope to open their eyes so they understand incarceration and don’t end up in prison. I want them to know they’re loved.”
“Their parents may have made mistakes, but they still want to wish their children a merry Christmas. That’s special,” said Angel Tree volunteer Robin Naitove.
To find out how to get involved, visit www.angeltree.org.