Non-profit organization strives to bring Christmas gifts to children of inmates

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Kevin Almestica remembers unwrapping a Christmas present at age 5 to find his favorite GI Joe action figure with a card from his mother who was serving time at New York’s Rikers Island prison complex.

“It brought me great joy to think that she was thinking of me,” the 27-year-old Florida-based photographer said.

Almestica’s gift was sent by Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Program, a nonprofit that partners with churches and volunteers to organize toy drives and give gifts to children on behalf of their families. incarcerated parents. It’s part of an effort by some faith groups and congregations to bring Christmas cheer — and connection — to prisoners and their children.

Angel Tree, Almestica said, helped strengthen a bond with his mother, who died when he was young.

“When I received this gift, it kind of gave me hope that my mom still loved me,” he said.

FILE – An illustrative image shows Christmas presents lying under a Christmas tree in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, December 24, 2015. (Photo by Caroline Seidel/picture alliance via Getty Images)

His mother didn’t want him growing up in the foster care system and asked a woman who volunteered with Prison Fellowship to raise him, Almestica said.

Today, Almestica sponsors the children of the program so that they can also receive gifts.

Angel Tree was founded in the 1980s by Mary Kay Beard, a bank robber who, while imprisoned in Alabama, noticed that inmates sometimes gave their children toothpaste, soaps or stockings for Christmas.

“She realized that if she could find volunteers on the outside who would buy and distribute Christmas presents to her children and the children of her colleagues in prison, she could create a very wonderful experience,” James said. Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, which expanded the program nationwide.

The program works with prison chaplains to reach inmates interested in sending gifts to their children. After collecting information about their favorite toys, they send this wish list to thousands of churches collecting donations. Some churches hold Christmas parties where volunteers give gifts to children with personalized notes from their incarcerated parents.

“We read these notes and they say, ‘Merry Christmas, honey, I love you so much. I miss you. I know I’ll see you again soon. And don’t forget to brush your teeth every night'” says Ackermann.

Children also receive children’s Bibles and can enroll in Christian summer camps.

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FILE – Common Ground Recovery Ministry of Atonement Lutheran Church hosts a party for Angel Tree, a Prison Fellowship program, Dec. 13, 2014, in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeremy Drey/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

The program can be crucial for parents, said Johnna Hose, who has volunteered with Angel Tree since being released from prison in 2010.

“While I was incarcerated, it was a great feeling to know that my kids… knew they weren’t alone, knowing there was this inspiration and learning about God,” said Hose, who works for a drug treatment center in California.

Her children received gifts through her local church and attended summer camp.

“All children want to know their parents are thinking of them at Christmas,” she said.

Jessica Lopez-Hermantin remembers wondering if she would talk to her father again after he was incarcerated. The Angel Tree gifts were “an affirmation of my dad’s love, my dad’s constant thought of me,” she said.

But the 33-year-old says the gifts should be part of a wider effort by incarcerated parents to have a relationship with their children. In her case, her father – who now works for Prison Fellowship – used to tell her Bible stories during prison visits; talk to him about school, boys, sports and music; take an interest in the books she was reading; and remember the names of some classmates.

“Little things like that…make a difference,” she said. “The Angel Tree gift is just the icing on the cake.”

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The Salvation Army also has a program that sends Christmas gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents in Minnesota and North Dakota. The initiative – separate from the Christian organization’s own Angel Tree program for low-income families – resumed this year after being canceled last year due to the pandemic, although it is limited to North Dakota for now due to coronavirus restrictions.

“For the inmate, Prison Toy Lift offers a dignified way for the parent to be a part of their child’s life at a very important time of year,” said Brian Molohon, Executive Director of North Division Development. Salvation Army. “It is a tangible expression of the love of the incarcerated parent and truly brings joy to children who otherwise might only have painful memories of their parent’s absence.”

The Prisons Ministry of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church distributed Christmas cards that were signed by members of different congregations and sent to inmates. The cards included messages of encouragement.

“Christmas is a difficult time of year for many people,” said Reverend Marilyn Schneider, ministry coordinator. “But if you’re locked down and can’t be with your family and friends or someone in your life outside, then someone reaches out and says, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of you. We “I’m praying for you. We care about you. God loves you ‘- that really, I think, has an impact.”

Schneider got a glimpse of the impact of the project in a letter sent by a woman who has already received one of the cards.

“I can’t explain what this personalized card meant to everyone; you could just feel the mood rise,” Schneider said quoting the letter. “Someone who doesn’t even know me thought of me.”

Another time, a former inmate met with one of the ministry staff and let him know he was carrying the Christmas card he had received in his pocket, Schneider said, adding that many inmates may receive no further mail.

“We believe that Jesus really had a passion for caring for people on the margins of society,” Schneider said. She hopes this effort will inspire those who write the cards to keep thinking about the prisoners and looking for ways to get involved.

Chaplain Carmelo Urena made a suggestion.

Urena, director of chaplaincy and religious services for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, asked Schneider for blank Christmas cards to hand out to inmates so they could send them to loved ones.

“The real punishment is not being able to share those special moments with your family,” he said.

Urena knows what it’s like – he said he spent more than two years in prison, where he reconnected with his faith.

“Faith for me and for many behind the walls is almost, like, early probation,” he said. “We have heard of who God is, but we don’t know who God is until we are in our predicament.”

Urena and her wife volunteer with Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree, buying and distributing toys and warm clothes.

“I always remember the faces of the children,” he said. “It’s so touching.”

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