11/22/2001 - Angel Tree
By Michael F. Flach
(From the Issue of 11/22/01)
Christmas will provide an escape during this time of national pain and uncertainty for the majority of American children. But for 2 million children of prisoners, Christmas will only intensify the pain they live with daily.
People in churches across America will add an extra childís name to their personal gift list this year to help heal the pain of separation these children experience. Prison Fellowshipís "Angel Tree" program will reach more than 500,000 of the 2 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 donít care as much about things as they do about being loved," said Beard. "When kids receive a Christmas gift from a parent whoís away, they know that they are loved and remembered, even if they canít 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 childís 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 Iím 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 doesnít 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 thatís 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 donít end up in prison. I want them to know theyíre loved."
"Their parents may have made mistakes, but they still want to wish their children a merry Christmas. Thatís special," said Angel Tree volunteer Robin Naitove.
To find out how to get involved, visit www.angeltree.org.
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