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Kevin Almestica remembers unwrapping a Christmas present at the age of 5 to find his favorite GI Joe action figure with a card from his mother who was serving time at the Rikers Island prison complex in New York City.
“It brought me great joy to think that she was thinking of me” said the 27-year-old Florida-based photographer.
Almestica’s gift was sent by the Angel Tree Program at Prison Fellowship, a non-profit organization that partners with churches and volunteers to organize toy drives and give gifts to children on behalf of their loved ones. parents incarcerated. It’s part of an effort by certain faith groups and congregations to bring Christmas joy – and connection – to prisoners and their children.
Angel Tree, Almestica said, helped strengthen ties with his mother, who died when he was young.
“When I received this gift, it kind of restored that hope that my mother still loved me” he said.
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 is sponsoring the children in 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 socks for Christmas.
âShe realized that if she could find volunteers outside who would buy and deliver Christmas gifts to her children and the children of her colleagues in prison, she could create a very wonderful experience. said James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, which has 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 that collect donations.
Some churches hold Christmas parties where volunteers give gifts to children with personalized notes from their incarcerated parents.
âWe read these notes and they say, ‘Merry Christmas, honey, I love you so much. ” I miss you. I know I’ll see you soon. And don’t forget to brush your teeth every night ‘â Ackerman said.
Children also receive children’s Bibles and can enroll in Christian summer camps.
The program can be crucial for parents, said Johnna Hose, who has volunteered for Angel Tree since being released from prison in 2010.
“While I was incarcerated it was a great feeling to know that my childrenâ¦ knew that they were not alone, knowing that there is this inspiration and getting to know God” said Hose, who works for an addiction treatment center in California.
Her children received gifts from her local church and attended a summer camp.
“Every child wants to know that his parent is thinking of him at Christmas time” she said.
Jessica Lopez-Hermantin remembers wondering if she would ever speak to her father again after his incarceration. The Angel Tree gifts were “An affirmation of my father’s love, my father constantly thinks of me” she said.
But the 33-year-old says the gifts should be part of a larger effort by incarcerated parents to have a relationship with their children. In her case, her father – who now works for Prison Fellowship – would tell her Bible stories during his visits to prison; talk to him about school, boys, sports and music; take an interest in the books she read; 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.”
The Salvation Army also has a program that sends Christmas gifts to children on behalf of their parents incarcerated in Minnesota and North Dakota. The initiative – separate from the Christian organization’s 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 the moment due to restrictions on coronaviruses.
“For the inmate, Prison Toy Lift offers parents a dignified way to be a part of their child’s life at a very important time of the year” said Brian Molohon, executive director of development for the Northern Division of the Salvation Army. “It is a tangible expression of the incarcerated parent’s love and truly brings joy to children who would otherwise only have a painful memory of their parents’ absence.”
The Corrections Department of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church presented Christmas cards signed by members of various congregations and sent to inmates. The cards contained messages of encouragement.
“Christmas is a difficult time of the year for many people” said Reverend Marilyn Schneider, ministry coordinator. âBut if you’re locked in and can’t be with your family and friends or someone with your life on the outside, then someone reaches out and says, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of you. We pray for you. We care about you. God loves you ‘- it really does, I think, have 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.
âI can’t explain what this personalized card meant to everyone; you could just feel the mood going up, “ Schneider cited the letter as saying. âSomeone who doesn’t even know me thought of me.
On another occasion, a former detainee met one of the ministry team and let him know he was carrying the Christmas card he had received in his pocket, Schneider said, adding that many prisoners may not receive further mail.
“We believe that Jesus really had the passion to take care of 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 these special moments with your family” he said.
Urena knows what it looks like – he said he spent over two years in prison, where he reconnected with his faith.
“Faith in me and for many behind the walls is almost, like, first probation”, he said. âWe have heard about who God is, but we don’t know who God is until we find ourselves in our predicament. “
Urena and his wife volunteer with Prison Fellowship Angel Tree, buying and distributing warm toys and clothes.
“I always remember the faces of the children” he said. “It is so touching to the heart.”