Kevin Almestica recalls unwrapping a Christmas present at age 5 to find his favorite G.I. Joe action figure with a card from his mom who was serving time at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex.
“That brought me great joy thinking that she was thinking of me,” said the 27-year-old Florida-based photographer.
Almestica’s gift was sent by the Angel Tree program of Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit which partners with churches and volunteers to host toy drives and deliver gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. It’s part of an effort by some faith groups and congregations to bring Christmas cheer -- and connection -- to prisoners and their kids.
Angel Tree, Almestica said, helped strengthen a bond with his mother, who died when he was young.
“When I got that gift, it kind of restored that hope that my mom still loved me," he said.
His mom didn’t want him to grow up in the foster care system and asked a woman who was volunteering with Prison Fellowship to raise him, Almestica said.
Today, Almestica sponsors kids in the program so they can also get presents.
Angel Tree was founded in the 1980s by Mary Kay Beard, a bank robber who, while imprisoned in Alabama, noticed how inmates would sometimes give their kids toothpaste, soaps 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 expanded the program nationwide.
The program works with prison chaplains to reach inmates interested in sending gifts to their children. After collecting information on their preferred toys, they send this wish list to thousands of churches that collect donated gifts. Some churches organize Christmas parties where volunteers deliver gifts to children with personalized notes from their incarcerated parents.
“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 said.
Kids also get children’s Bibles and can sign up for Christian summer camps.
The program can be crucial for parents, said Johnna Hose, who has volunteered for Angel Tree since her release from prison in 2010.
“While I was incarcerated, it was a great feeling knowing that my kids...knew that they weren’t alone, knowing that there is this inspiration and learning about God,” said Hose, who works for a drug addiction treatment center in California.
Her children received presents through her local church and attended summer camp.
“Any kid wants to know that their parent is thinking about them at Christmas time,” she said.
Jessica Lopez-Hermantin recalls wondering whether she would ever speak to her father again after he went to prison. Angel Tree gifts were “an affirmation of my dad’s love, my dad’s constant thinking of me,” she said.
But the 33-year-old says the presents should be part of a larger effort by incarcerated parents to have a relationship with their children. In her case, her dad — who now works for Prison Fellowship — would tell her Bible stories during prison visits; talk to her about school, boys, sports and music; take interest in the books she was reading; and remember some classmates’ names.
“Little things like that...make the 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 incarcerated parents in Minnesota and North Dakota. The initiative -- separate from the Christian organization’s own Angel Tree program for low-income families -- resumed this year after being canceled last year due to the pandemic, though it’s limited to North Dakota for now because of coronavirus restrictions.
“For the inmate, Prison Toy Lift provides a dignified way for the parent to be part of their child’s life at a very important time of the year,” said Brian Molohon, executive director of development for The Salvation Army Northern Division. “It is a tangible expression of love from the incarcerated parent and truly brings joy to the kiddos who might otherwise have only a painful memory of their parent’s absence."
The prison ministry at the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church delivered Christmas cards that were signed by members of different congregations and sent for inmates. The cards included messages of encouragement.
“Christmas is a tough time of the year for a lot of people,” said the Rev. Marilyn Schneider, the ministry’s coordinator. “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.”
Schneider caught a glimpse of the project's impact in a letter sent by a woman who once received one of the cards.
“I can’t explain what that personalized card meant to everyone; you could just feel the mood lifting up,” Schneider quoted the letter as saying. “Someone who doesn’t even know me thought of me."
Another time, a former inmate encountered one of the ministry’s team members and let him know that he was carrying around, in his pocket, the Christmas card he had received, Schneider said, adding many prisoners might not get other mail.
“We believe Jesus really had a passion for caring for those on the fringes of society,” Schneider said. She hopes the effort inspires those writing the cards to continue thinking about prisoners and seeking ways to become involved.
Chaplain Carmelo Urena offered one suggestion.
Urena, the director of chaplaincy and religious services at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, asked Schneider for blank Christmas cards to distribute to inmates so they can send them to their loved ones.
“The real punishment is not being able to share these special moments with your family,” he said.
Urena knows what that feels like -- he said he spent more than two years in prison, where he reconnected with his faith.
“Faith to me and to many behind the walls is almost, like, an early probation,” he said. “We’ve heard of who God is, but we don’t know who God is until we have ourselves in our predicament."
Urena and his wife volunteer with Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree, buying and distributing toys and warm clothes.
“I always remember the faces of the kids,” he said. “It’s so heart touching.”
Martha Blake, Mary Russell, Helen Hawkins, Charles Morales, Connie Haynes, Donald Taylor, Adrian Schmidt, Albert James, Deborah Harrington, Andrea Kelley, Lee Larson, Rosa Johnson, Esther Little, Melvin Watson, Arlene Willis, Elizabeth Walker, Thomas Smith, Clarence Quinn, Donald Jones, Andrew Gibbs, Gloria Moore, Virginia Griffin, Helen Clark, Betty Turner, Donald Clark, Eric Hayes, Carmen Castro, Edward Patterson, Shirley Robinson, Gregory Rowe, Terry Williams, Jessica Johnson, Jessica Newton, Todd Garcia, Jimmy Parks, Michael Moore, Chad Flores, Sandra Ross, Matthew McDaniel, Leslie Dixon, Victoria Rice, Maria Davis, Louis Lewis, Maria Evans, Rita Russell, Elsie Holland, Ralph Lambert, Patricia Williams, Ella Pearson, Clarence Carr, Catherine Douglas, Michael Jones, Jose Schneider, Leonard Clark, Mark Rodriguez, Marc Wheeler, John Mitchell, Kenneth Evans, John Roberts, Sherry King, Jennifer Barnes, Eddie Smith, Javier Hopkins, Stephen Farmer, Steve Warner, Carolyn Davis, Laura Ryan, Kenneth McDonald, Sean Fox, William Castro, Sarah Fisher, Sandra Mason, Keith Hart, Bertha White, Larry Brewer, Cynthia Hall, Daniel Jennings, Juanita Ruiz, Maria Wood, Julie Bell, Jeffrey Morris, Anna Lee, Erik Phillips, Thelma Osborne, Jacqueline Fields, David Morton, Thomas Graham, Kyle Brown, Mario Carr, Robert Jones, Jennifer Williams, Milton Webb, Minnie Wright, Carolyn Mason, Bonnie Carter, Chad Alexander, Cynthia Keller, William Morgan, Scott Jones, Debra Holt, John Rogers, Joseph Miller, Lisa Duncan, Denise Taylor, Daniel Barnett, Alan Taylor, Tracy Edwards, Holly Tucker, Harold Wolfe, Rosa Jensen, Robert Payne, Dora Taylor, Paul Williams, Harold Castro, Violet Graham, Mario Cain, Elizabeth Dean, Milton Douglas, Pauline Rice, Gail Lewis, Agnes Richardson, Regina Edwards, Benjamin Allen, Monica Carson, Travis Chambers, Wendy Hill, Randy Smith, Louise Marshall, Robert Young, Michelle Bradley, Clyde Stephens, Jerome Walker, Michelle Stevenson, Lucille Johnson, James Bailey, Jesse Lee, Juan Morris, Bonnie Smith, Richard Nunez, Kenneth Boone, Alfred Williams, Wayne Moore, Ashley Baker, William Park, Robert Curtis, Jose Hogan, Kristen Jones, Randy Flores, Nancy Gardner, Dorothy Ortega, Barbara Ortiz, Lydia Mason, Frank Rogers, Heather Miller, Jeanette Anderson, Edna Edwards, Stephanie Evans, Timothy Rose, Tiffany Garza, Victor Hopkins, Charles Logan, Jacob Oliver, Donald Malone, Jerry Parker, Earl Smith, Scott Washington, Christina Wilson, Richard Williams, Sheila Ramirez, Earl Walker, Jeff Lopez, Mildred Green, Kenneth Cole, Kathryn Alvarado, John Garcia, Roger Williams, Samantha Hicks, Richard Greene, Mary Ross, Linda Richardson, James Crawford, Cody Coleman, James Morris, Carrie Palmer, Thomas Dennis, Stephen Medina, Joyce Price, Allen Hunt, Mary Jones, William Jimenez, Joel Lewis, Bradley Hernandez, Marjorie Parsons, Janice Martinez, Amy Rogers, Anna Soto, Frank Stokes, Jamie Myers, Patricia Williams, Laura Nelson, Robin Campbell, Jennifer Miller, Anthony Stevens, Manuel Gonzales, Arthur Davis, Mark Stone, Charles Jordan, Jose Gonzalez, Corey Pena, Aaron Buchanan, Angela Harris, Alvin Mullins, Melvin Fuller, Stephen Cole, Jeffery Sutton, Richard Williams, Maurice Mills, Robert Olson, William Johnson, Steven Perkins, Melanie Morgan, James Reed, Bobby Gray, Mildred Sanders, Daniel Luna, Bonnie Ford, Robert Cross, Melvin Chandler, Joyce Lawrence, Ann Torres, Justin Smith, Amy Martinez, Annie Johnson, Evelyn Reyes, Stephanie Lee, Barbara Davis, William Brown, James Munoz, Cynthia Ferguson, Karen Price, Ida Jackson, Larry Sutton, Rose Berry, Erin Johnson, Roy Wilson, Penny Anderson, Michael Barrett, Derrick Evans, Larry Moran, Jay Arnold, Mary Jones, Anne Lawson, Anna Lee, Thomas Smith, Marjorie Dean, Kenneth Martin, Alan Herrera, Kenneth Scott, Justin Jones, Adam Boone, Alicia Garcia, Walter Rogers, Minnie Romero, Steven Williams, John Martin, Gail Hanson, Ruth Edwards, Dorothy Green, Jerry Daniels, Julia Sherman, Paul Johnson, Regina Lambert, Justin Rice, Jerry Davis, Lori Ward, Arthur Lewis, Carmen Williams, David Hughes, Eugene Webb, Helen Jennings, Willie Thompson, Alvin Ferguson, Peter Gordon, Emily Smith, Christine Lewis, David Campbell, Joseph Gonzales, Barbara Harper, Patricia Wagner, Glen Meyer, Ron Barton, Paul Colon, George McGuire, James Graham, Carla Allen, Joyce Smith, Jean Jenkins, Jason Flores, Thomas Brown, Ella Ford, Thelma Taylor, Kenneth Martinez, John Henderson, Robert Patton, Vera Ellis, Dorothy Rivera, Elizabeth Moody, Jessica Green, Dwayne Davis, Phyllis Miller, Timothy Goodman, William Caldwell, Janet Allen, Anna Daniels, Karen Davis, Corey Edwards, Brenda Mitchell, Edwin Hernandez, Kevin Williams, Gary Johnson, Edward Schultz, Kelly Hall, Billy Campbell, Debbie Snyder, Julia Smith, Patrick Perez, Kenneth Cook, James Robinson, Randy Medina, Timothy Taylor, Phyllis Curry, Samantha Clark, Angela Clark, Jose Wilson, Erin Harris, Brenda Johnson, Karen Diaz, Nathan Jefferson, Susan Lawrence, Beverly Stewart, Daniel Kim, Lorraine Perez, Melissa Castillo, Edward Anderson, Carol Collier, Mary Love, Carolyn Murphy, Cheryl Torres, Earl Peterson, Jessica Brown, Jessica Bradley, Oscar Rodriguez, Henry Coleman, Jason Paul, Jennifer Walker, Roy Johnston, Caroline Rivera, Thelma Medina, Harry Porter, Robert Turner, Michael Jones, Everett Young, Glenn Jacobs, Jacqueline Walker, James Singleton, Troy Anderson, Judith Lewis, Brenda Sparks, Judith Sanchez, Joshua Phelps, Michael Allen, James Garcia, James Cooper, Suzanne Santos, Joanne Morris, Joseph Rivera, William Farmer, James McLaughlin, Marilyn Williams, Amy Turner, Helen Reed, James Fields, Dustin Johnson, Megan Ferguson, Linda Martin, Pedro Davis, Carl Graham, Norman Welch, Peter Perry, Melinda Bowman, Willie Cox, Kenneth Taylor, Lorraine Reed, Ruth Williams, Leon Lewis, Wanda Wilson, Laura Torres, Fernando Clarke, Margaret Andrews, Margie Thompson, Nicole Johnson, Dennis Wilson, Angel Johnson, Robert Reed, Rebecca Smith, Richard Miles, Jennifer Rose, Terrance Clark, Felix Henderson, Robert Patterson, Charles Willis, Maria Martinez, Cynthia Wood, Brenda Brown, Elizabeth Higgins, Mary Hicks, Melanie Garcia, Frances Collins, Jason Smith, Susan Walters, Joseph Webb, Shawn Coleman, Virgil James, Harold Sutton, Edward Rodriguez, Esther White, Jessie McLaughlin, Jonathan Fisher, Ethel Washington, William Anderson, Veronica Dunn, Joshua Gardner, Betty Castro, Jack Warner, Gary Snyder, Thomas Mendez, Brian Stewart, Jane Baldwin, Christina Jackson, Dolores Gonzalez, Diana Miller, Michael White, Zachary Copeland, George White, Deborah Richardson, Clifford Clark, Becky Hill, Tanya Gray, Kim Holloway, Connie Roberts, David Miller, Kelly Hicks, Patricia Hines, Lillian Barber, Steven Moore, Barbara Evans, Duane Walker, Laura Ross, Susan Green, Carol Nash, James Rose, Glen Coleman, Daniel Rogers, Erin Soto, Juan Wilson, Amber Fields, David Gibson, Shirley White, Brent Jones, Eddie Sherman, Eleanor Miller, Melinda Fisher, Jackie Lloyd, Pauline Cunningham, William Hayes, Brittany Torres, Carolyn Anderson, Dorothy Perez, Daniel Holland, Mary Richards, Veronica Jones, Debra Johnson, Grace Rios, Leona Jackson, Darrell May, Alexander Flores, Miguel Duncan, James Matthews, Helen Peters, Ruth Willis, Michael Miller, Robert Miller, Courtney Wright, Teresa Hampton, Lorraine Hamilton, Donald Mitchell, Paula Taylor, John Bush, Frances Campbell, Matthew Walker, Jessica Martin, Marjorie Berry, Andrew Douglas, Mary Taylor, Dorothy Scott, Mary Jensen, Christina Graham, Anna Jones, Alma Baker, Laura McGee, Robert Matthews, John Watson, Philip Anderson, Megan Meyer, Janice Mills, Michael Phillips, Allan Henderson, James Wilson, John Watts, Lawrence Banks, Brian Dixon, Heather King, Hector Anderson, Sarah Owens, David Massey, Ruben Parker, Amanda Baker, Adam Turner, Wayne Carpenter, Sandra Williams, Michael Peterson, Willie Herrera, Daniel Peterson, Helen Jones, George Henderson, Michael Taylor, Enrique Martinez, Kathy James, Theresa Moody, Bernice Martin, Richard Moore, Elizabeth Ross, Jennifer Gray, Margaret Williams, Colleen Greer, Brittany Gonzalez, James Scott, Phyllis Lewis, Claudia Brock, Manuel Clark, John Miller, Frank Lee, Harold Smith, David Smith, Tommy Ellis, Brittany Owens, Albert Rose, Nicole Henderson, Julio Duncan, Paul Marshall, Julia Wells, Philip Terry, Rebecca Bates, Connie Clark, Allen Carter, Ronald King, Kathleen Martinez, Linda Terry, Joseph Campbell, Margie Lewis, Martin Tate, Rosa Hale, Elmer Freeman, Ronald Roberts, Constance Tate, Paul Taylor, Myrtle Schultz, Larry Smith, Richard Hill, James Cook, Carl Phillips, David Miller, Mildred Daniels, Willie Gibbs, Eleanor Gonzalez, Christopher Davis, Linda Alvarado, Mary Williams, Pamela Howard, Leonard Brown, Janet Burns, Terry Jenkins, John Becker, Donna Mullins, Rodney Brown, Betty Jones, Tiffany Rose, Louis Gordon, Robin Thompson, Daniel Santiago
Post a Comment