(Photo: Prison Fellowship)
Christmas is only weeks away but 50,000 children whose parents are behind bars may miss their only chance at celebrating Christmas.
Prison Fellowship expects to serve about 400,000 children this year with the love of their imprisoned parents and of Christ through its annual Angel Tree program, but 50,000 children remain unsponsored.
And time is running out.
"This need is larger than we usually see at Christmas," Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, told The Christian Post. "When these children don't get served ... Christmas is not the same as it is when you know that your mom or dad remembered you and someone loves you and cares for you.
"We're really trusting on the generosity of people all across the United States in this season, particularly when you realize that among children, the children of prisoners are some of the poorest of the poor."
Angel Tree is the only nationwide effort that reaches exclusively to children with parents who are incarcerated. Every year, some 10,000 churches sign up to sponsor children of incarcerated parents in their own communities by sending them a Christmas gift, a note from the imprisoned parent, and the Gospel message.
And for many of these children, this is the only Christmas they'll have considering their poverty level, Earley noted.
The Prison Fellowship president was recently at the University of Alabama where the Athletic department presented the Angel Tree package to some 50 kids. When Earley spoke with some of the children's caregivers, they told him, "This is our Christmas this year."
Normally by this time of year, all of Angel Tree's children are sponsored but Earley believes the economic downturn has impacted this year's giving.
Though Prison Fellowship does not have exact numbers yet, Earley believes fewer churches may be participating this year or that fewer congregants within those churches are selecting angels (containing a child's name) off the Christmas tree to sponsor.
The 50,000 children who remain unsponsored reside in hard-to-reach areas around the United States, Earley noted. They are either in rural areas where churches are not in close proximity or in urban areas where there are not enough churches to support all the children.
To make sponsorship easier, Prison Fellowship has set up a Web page where people can give children the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with a monetary donation of $35.20. The money will go toward giving a child a Christmas gift, the Gospel message, and a note from mom or dad.
"For children, when their parents go to prison they are really a victim of their parent's crime in the sense that they lose their parent," Earley said. "There's a lot of guilt and shame associated with being a prisoner's child. At the same time, for a lot of parents in prison, they carry a lot of guilt and shame because they realize what they've done had separated them with their child."
"So the real impact of Angel Tree is ... it lets the children know that their parents haven't forgotten about them and it gives the parent a real opportunity to connect with their child."
Rick Vasquez, who is now on staff with Prison Fellowship, was formerly an inmate at a Texas prison. He was a member of a gang and nicknamed "demon" for beating up Christians. While serving a 10-year prison sentence, Vasquez came to Christ and signed up his children for Angel Tree. His daughter came to Christ through Angel Tree, said Earley.
Vasquez is now a pastor and his daughter is also married to a pastor.
"It's those kinds of stories that we hear every Christmas that let us know that this program is more than a gift-giving program," Earley highlighted. "It's a program that creates new life in families and new life in Jesus Christ."
Since 1982, more than 7.5 million children of prisoners have received some 16 million Christmas gifts through Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree.
To sponsor a child, visit: https://www.angeltree.org/sharethegift