The gifts that Palmers 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 Angel Tree that is at the heart of every gift exchange: the experience of a loving connection between a parent and a child.
Almost 70 children will experience that connection this month as Palmers go 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 Mom or Dad.
Angel Tree was started 35 years ago by a woman who was incarcerated herself. She saw her fellow inmates treat an item as mundane 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. “I know what I did was wrong,” says one parent on her gift tag. “But I still love you.”
The program operates under the auspices of Prison Fellowship, which 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 has participated in Angel Tree for more than two decades. This year parishioner Jenn Vaughan took the lead on the program, assisted by Johnna Kincaid who has done so for the past three 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 the Angel Tree 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.
“It doesn’t matter how many children we serve in any given year, Palmer people want to participate” said Jenn. “Our part is easy because we have such generous parishioners.”
This year’s logistics and family needs were made even more complex because of dislocations caused by Hurricane Harvey, with one family not knowing where they would be until after Thanksgiving. “When Angel Tree volunteer Eric Murillo discovered a caregiver requesting coats, shoes and blankets, we were able to put her in touch with Palmer’s Harvey relief team, and gift cards were promptly provided,” said Jenn. “It was multiple ministries working together for the common goal – to serve.”
“When you read the notes these inmates write, they are filled with love,” said Johnna. “Working with these families is heart warming and heart breaking and all of the above.” Recalling David, a little boy she visited for the past three years, she 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,” Johnna said. This year David is no longer on the list of Angel Tree children. “I like to think maybe Dad is home,” she said.