My church, Grace United Methodist Church in South Bend, has for years participated in the Angel Tree program, where our members purchase Christmas gifts for children of incarcerated parents. Angel Tree was founded during the 1970s by Mary Kay Beard and Chuck Colson through an organization called Prison Fellowship.
Both Colson and Beard served time in prison, Colson more famously for crimes he committed during Watergate. Beard was sentenced to 21 years for armed robbery and grand larceny. While in prison, Beard noticed prisoners squirreling away toiletries from care packages they received so they could give them as gifts to their children. That sparked the idea that Beard proposed to Colson when she went to work for Prison Ministries upon her release from prison.
Each year, participating churches across the country get a list of local families who have a parent incarcerated. The list includes children under 18 years of age. Volunteers call the parents, grandparents, or other caregivers to get gift ideas for each of the children, both “fun” gifts and clothing gifts.
Around Thanksgiving, those gift ideas are hung on a Christmas tree and church members “adopt” one or more of the angels. The purchased gifts (totaling about $50 total per child) are then returned to the church wrapped and then volunteers deliver the gifts to the families prior to Christmas. The key part is that the gifts are labeled as being from the incarcerated parent.
It has been my privilege to deliver packages for many years, along with dozens of my fellow congregants. Some of the children want to unwrap the gifts right then (and a couple of parents have allowed it). One child, assuming I knew his dad, asked me how his dad was doing. That kind of took me by surprise and I mumbled something about he was doing well (what a dummy I am, ever quick on the response!)
One year, a teenager asked for sewing supplies, and a member of our congregation bought her a sewing machine. What an incredible act of generosity and a potential life changer!
This year, one family I called made a special impression on me. I was assigned to call a family with two girls. Usually when volunteers call for ideas, we are met with some suspicion and skepticism. Free gifts sound like a scam. Perhaps they think we are debt collectors. Some don’t want anything to do with the incarcerated parent. Caller ID means the first call usually goes to voicemail and many times, the family will not call back.
My first call to this particular family went to voicemail and the message was in Spanish. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I left a message in English. A week later, I had not heard back. I called again, and this time, the mother answered but could not speak English. She handed the phone off to her older daughter. This was awkward because I was trying to get gift ideas that were supposed to be a surprise for her.
I explained how Angel Tree worked and asked her to get her mother’s permission to participate. Her mom said yes. But the daughter was not ready to give me ideas for her and her younger sister. She promised to call me in a few days.
I waited. On the Thursday I had to turn in my gift requests, I still had not heard back. My impatience kicked in. “I’m not going to beg these folks to accept free Christmas gifts,” I grumbled. And in some cases in the past, that would have been that. But something nagged at me about this young lady. She had been soft-spoken and polite. She remembered my name and thanked me before hanging up.
After work, I called one more time. Her mom answered. I asked to speak to her daughter and she understood me. The daughter apologized for not returning my call, saying she had been busy with school work. I asked for her gift ideas, yet she started with ideas for her younger sister (who I could hear whispering her ideas while sitting close by). The ideas were all well thought out and practical; hoodies, socks, winter hats, books, pens, and journals. What great ideas!
So even though I don’t always deliver the gifts to the families I call, I requested that I be the one to deliver to this family. I even “adopted” all of their angels and shopped for them myself (with my wife, of course), something I loathe doing anytime near Christmas (the shopping, not the wife part).
A week before Christmas, I delivered the gifts. I asked the younger daughter to translate for her mom. I complimented their mother on how polite, practical, and charming her girls were. Their mom beamed! I will not soon forget this family.
Having a family member in prison must be a terrible burden. The Angel Tree gift labels said the gifts were from their father/stepfather. I left their home that day, with the real gift: a sometimes hard heart, strangely warmed by this kind family.