The gifts that parishioners give vary as far as the imagination can go – stuffed animals, Power Ranger figures, stylish leggings, magnetic rocks and baseball bats – but there is one consistent gift from Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church’s participation in the Angel Tree ministry that is at the heart of every gift: the experience of a loving connection between a parent and a child.
About 30 children will experience that connection this month as Palmer Church goes out to Houston area neighborhoods to deliver a Christmas gift with a loving message from a parent in the Texas prison system. It is the message on the tag, as much as the gift inside the package, that brings such joy to children who miss their parent.
Angel Tree is a national movement started 36 years ago by a woman who was incarcerated herself. She saw her fellow inmates treat an item as simple as a bar of soap as precious treasure when it could be presented to a son or daughter as a gift. Whatever they could find at Christmas time to send home to their families held extra special meaning because it helped them to maintain a presence in their children’s lives – a prized opportunity for mutual joy.
The program operates under the auspices of Prison Fellowship, an organization that believes there is not enough rehabilitation taking place in the prison system, making reintegration into society difficult upon an inmate’s release. There are 2.7 million kids in the United States who have one or more parent incarcerated, which equates to one in 28 children in U.S. classrooms. Studies show that these children often isolate themselves due to shame, and ensuing socialization difficulties devolve into the same problems that led to their parents’ troubles with the law.
Palmer Church has participated in Angel Tree for more than two decades. Parishioner Jenn Vaughan leads the program, assisted by Parishioner Johnna Kincaid who has done so for the past four years. The effort behind the scenes is extensive. The Angel Tree organization works with chaplains in the Texas prison system and in October provides lists of children – called “angels” – to its network participants, including Palmer. Palmer, like its fellow providers, then goes about managing the long, intensive string of logistics necessary to complete the process: establishing contact with the children’s caregivers, setting up a Christmas tree on the parish campus with gift suggestions, managing the inventory when gift givers bring packages to the church, and delivering to caregivers’ homes at agreed-upon times. If there are additional children in the home, Angel Tree makes sure that no one goes without.
“When you read the notes these inmates write, they are filled with love,” said Vaughan. “Working with these families is heart warming and heart breaking and all of the above.”
Recalling David, a little boy she visited for past three years, Kincaid said the boy’s mother would answer the door and announce that the Angel Tree lady was there. “If the kid could have smiled any bigger his face would have split,” Kincaid said. Last year David was no longer on the list of Angel Tree children. “I like to think maybe Dad was home,” she said.