Angel Tree gives incarcerated parents a chance to reach out to their kids at Christmas
Last updated 12/15/2006 at Noon
For the past three holiday seasons, the four children in a Lake Elsinore family, ages 1 to 9, have known that Daddy went away to jail and can’t live with them anymore. But with the help of local church volunteers in the Angel Tree Christmas program, these young children will know they are not forgotten and are still in their father’s heart. He has arranged to have gifts purchased for them to help make their Christmas morning a little brighter.
At a December 17 Christmas party hosted by A Labor of Love Adoptions in Lake Elsinore and Gem of the Valley Church of Wildomar, more than 200 children and their families will gather for a yuletide celebration to support the children during the dark hours of a parent’s prison term. Each child will receive an article of clothing, a Christmas present and a Christmas meal. Local businesses, the Wildomar Chamber of Commerce and church and high school student volunteers are banding together for the cause at the Gem of the Valley Church.
“Who’s looking out for the kids?” asks Mona Davies of Gem of the Valley, who co-founded the Wildomar church with husband Bob. “It was an automatic with me. I have a real compassion for them. I lived it.”
Davies took custody and raised her nephew at a young age when her brother was sent to prison. She knows firsthand the hard and lonely path, often fraught with pitfalls, children of incarcerated parents have to travel. The emotional pain and social stigma of having a relative in jail is acutely intensified during the holiday season. Davies raised her nephew to become a law-abiding, productive member of society without the support that is available today.
“It really touches my heart because of my background with my brother,” says Davies. “Children who are the neediest are most at-risk. They are really victims of crime too.”
Statistics from Prison Fellowship, a Christian outreach program for convicts and the umbrella organization for Angel Tree, show that a child with an incarcerated parent is five times more likely to follow in a parent’s footsteps down the wrong path. Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide and member of the Watergate Seven who served time in federal prison. About two million children in the United States currently have at least one parent serving time. More than 10 million children have experienced the permanent or temporary loss of a parent due to a prison sentence.
The Angel Tree program was started 24 years ago by a modern female version of Jesse James. Mary Kay Beard once held the distinction of being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and a Mafia hit list. The FBI caught her first. While serving a portion of her 22-year sentence for bank robbery, Beard observed convicted mothers gathering donations they received from charity to use as Christmas presents for their children. Toiletries like soap, shampoo and toothpaste brought smiles of delight from the children, who only wanted gifts from their moms.
After her release in 1978, Beard joined Prison Fellowship in 1981 and set up the Alabama Angel Tree Christmas program in 1982. Five hundred fifty-six children received gifts during the inaugural year. To date, nearly 6.3 million children have benefited from the program through the volunteer work of about 14,000 churches nationwide.
“ is a miracle,” says Prison Fellowship Field Director Stephanie Woodend, who manages the San Diego County and Inland Empire areas. According to Woodend, Beard only recently retired from the ministry a few months ago.
“It’s amazing how God works to change the life of an inmate, Woodend says. “We’re working with the inmates’ children to stop the cycle.”
“Those we can reach, we teach them a better way of life,” she explains. “We’re reaching out to these families with the love of Christ. It makes a tremendous impact.”
Inmates can’t believe people care about their families and it gives them a positive outlook on life when they re-enter society, Woodend says. She anticipates Angel Tree will help 9,000 to 10,000 children in her district this year.
But Christmas is just the beginning for the nation’s only source of year-round programs for prisoners and their families. “We’re not just a Christian Toys for Tots,” says Woodend. She says it “gets the foot in the door” to locate at-risk children. Opportunities to attend week-long camps in a supportive atmosphere and a mentoring program like Big Brothers/Big Sisters provide alternative role models to guide children with Christian fellowship and support. “It’s all designed to have a positive impact on these children,” Woodend said.
The mother of the children in Lake Elsinore appreciates the attention her kids have received from the program while their dad is struggling. “It gives them something to look forward to from their dad,” she said by phone interview. “It gives them a little more happiness.”
“Our hope is that this is just the beginning of a whole new life for these children,” says Davies. “We try to give them hope and let them know there are good opportunities for a bright future.”
The Angel Tree Christmas Party will begin at 1 p.m. at Gem of the Valley Church on Sunday, December 17. For more information, contact A Labor of Love Adoptions at (951) 674-8400, Gem of the Valley Church at (951) 698-7650, the Wildomar Chamber of Commerce at (951) 245-0437 or Prison Fellowship at (800) 245-9998. Or, visit http://www.angeltree.org, http://www.wildomarchamber.org or http://www.pfm.org.