When we started attending our church (a large, multi-site church in Cincinnati), I volunteered for Angel Tree, hoping to meet people and make the place feel smaller. I’ve continued to serve with this ministry for the past 11 years because I want to be part of the overwhelming generosity of others in our community. According to prisonfellowship.org, “one in 28 American children lives with the shame of a parent’s incarceration.” There’s a detailed graphic on their website that provides an astounding and heartbreaking picture of the reality: 2.2 million men and women are incarcerated. 95% of prisoners are released, meaning 600,000 will return to their communities this year. Two out of three will be rearrested, leaving 2.7 million children with a parent in prison.
In the fall, churches across the nation register to participate in the Angel Tree program. Chaplains help prisoners register their children in the national database. Children are then assigned to various congregations around the country. At our church, volunteer callers contact caregivers for unique gift ideas for the children. The families may request one fun gift and one clothing gift or two clothing gifts for each child. The Angel Tree website recommends a price range of $15-$25 per gift. Shoppers select Angel Tree tags off Christmas trees, and they purchase gifts on behalf of the incarcerated parent. These gifts are then delivered to the children by another group of volunteers. For several years, our family served together during Angel Tree. As I helped organize gifts in Toyland, my husband and our daughters dressed as Buddy the Elf and his helpers. They handed out candy in the Atrium between services.
As a caller, I’ve had many caregivers request socks and underwear, coats, and pajamas as the clothing gift. Often, families will suggest two clothing gifts, providing sizes and favorite colors or characters. Our daughters enjoy choosing tags for kids around their ages who have requested coats or pajamas. Both girls sit at my laptop with a calculator, and we shop on Kohls.com. Through this service project, our kids have practiced the valuable life skill of working within a budget as well as learning to save money through the use of coupons.
If you don’t attend church or if your church doesn’t participate in this ministry, you can still get involved. Last week I heard a Angel Tree radio announcement: there are still 29,000 children who would love to receive a gift from their incarcerated parents. When you donate today, “a matching grant will help reach TWICE as many children with a Christmas gift.” There are opportunities to stay involved throughout the year as these kids need mentors to keep them on the right track. If you live in the greater Cincinnati area, I invite you to join us as a volunteer with Angel Tree next year.
Merry Christmas! Wishing you many blessings in 2017.