Volunteers from churches will descend on their neighborhoods this Christmas season, delivering gifts to children of prisoners.
Each year, prisoners sign their children up to receive Christmas gifts from Angel Tree, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. Volunteers then contact the caregivers to find out what the children want. These wishes are written on paper angels and hung on Christmas trees in participating churches. Church members select paper angels and purchase the requested items (usually one toy and one practical item), wrapping them for delivery either to the childs home or at a community Christmas party where the gifts are distributed.
With less than 40 people working in the ministry, Vickie Thornhill, director of the Christmas campaign of Angel Tree, said, "It's the 13,000 churches who do the heavy lifting on this."
Vice President Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship said, "The fact that the church reaches out in love and helps provide a gift to the child in the name of the parent to help continue the bond between child and parent, it not only blesses the child, but the adults too. And it reminds the parent that the community still has a stake in their success and their family's."
Last year, over 320,000 applications were received, and more than half a million children received a piece of clothing or a toy.
There is a need, however, for more churches to partner with the ministry. There remains 25 percent of the nation's prisons still without the ministry, which began in 1982.
Prisoners children are the most at-risk youth in America. Studies show that they are five times more likely to end up in prison themselves, according to U.S. News & World Report in April 2002. And they are at a greater risk for child abuse, illiteracy, crime, teen pregnancy, depression, and addiction.
Christmas is an especially difficult time for these kids, but many feel their parents and God's love through the program that has reached out to them as America's only effort to assist children whose fathers or mothers are behind bars.
So often, these children are part of the unreached populations of American society, said Thornhill, but through the organization, churches are becoming missions organizations in their own neighborhoods.
"We believe that the local church really wants to deliver ministry not just overseas but also in their own local community. And through Angel Tree, the prisoner actually allows us to be invited into the homes of these at-risk children," she said. "So the churches are actually going by invitation into a population that desperately needs the Lord."
"God found a way to reach into these families that no one had ever found before," she added.
Nolan appreciates the ministry for the way it kept him and his family together at a time when it was most needed.
Previously a member of the California legislature, Nolan was convicted of racketeering for accepting a campaign contribution that was part of an FBI sting. He was sent to a labor camp in Dublin, Calif., outside of San Francisco.
"I had no ability to provide for my children, and was frustrated at that," he said. "I tried drawing because we know that Christmas is not about gifts but in our culture it is a way of showing love especially to our families."
One day, another inmate found some Angel Tree applications the chaplain of the prison had shoved into a bookcase.
"It was like treasure. We filled them out right away," said Nolan.
Afterwards, a couple from a Baptist church contacted him. They later visited his wife and three children, aged 5, 4, and 10 months.
The couple said, "These gifts are from your father and our Father in Heaven."
"I was unable to provide, but the church with the arms of the body of Christ, was reaching out to my family," said Nolan.
On Nov. 27, churches nationwide will put up Angel Trees decorated with paper angels that contain the names of prisoners children and families will begin selecting angels. From Dec. 4-11, families return wrapped gifts to the churches and place them under the Angel Tree, and from Dec. 12-23, church volunteers deliver gifts to children at home or at a community Christmas party.
Angel Tree is a program of Prison Fellowship, the worlds largest prison outreach to prisoners and their children.