Several Christian groups and congregations around the U.S. work to offer a little Christmas joy to inmates and their children over the holidays.
Angel Tree is a charity project run by Prison Fellowship that collects toys with the help of churches and volunteers. They often bring gifts to their children on behalf of the jailed parents.
Mary Kay Beard, a bank robber, established Angel Tree in the 1980s. While confined in Alabama, Kay Beard observed inmates giving their children toothpaste, soap, or socks for Christmas.
“She realized that if she could find some volunteers on the outside who would purchase and deliver Christmas gifts to her children and the children of her colleagues in prison, that she could create a very wonderful experience,” said James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, which widened the program across the country.
When Kevin Almastica, a 27-year-old photographer from Florida, was five years old, Angel Tree assisted him in receiving his mother’s gift—his favourite G.I. Joe action figure, and a Christmas card. His mother was incarcerated at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City at the time.
“When I got that gift, it kind of restored that hope that my mom still loved me,” Almastica recalled according to the ABC News.
“We read these notes and they’re like, ‘Merry Christmas, sweetie, 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,’” Ackerman stated.
The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church provided Christmas cards written by members of various churches and sent to prisoners.
“Christmas is a tough time of the year for a lot of people,” Rev. Marilyn Schneider, the ministry’s coordinator, said.
“But if you’re locked up and you don’t get to be with your family and friends or anyone from your life on the outside, and then someone reaches out and says, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you. We’re praying for you. We care about you. God loves you’—it really, I think, has an impact.” he added.
One of the ministry team members once met a former prisoner. He stated that he was carrying the Christmas card he had received in his pocket.
The Philadelphia Department of Prisons’ director of chaplaincy and religious services, Carmelo Urena, requested that Schneider send blank Christmas cards to inmates. They will be able to write and send those cards to their loved ones.
“The real punishment is not being able to share these special moments with your family,” said Urena, who spent more than two years in prison.