In 1974, Chuck Colson, a top aide to President Nixon at the time, served seven months in prison due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal. He pled guilty to obstruction of justice, and was sent to Maxwell Prison in Alabama. During his sentencing phase, he converted to Christianity.
“[Colson] believed that God put him in prison for a purpose, and he wanted to do something for those who were left behind.” says Jim Forbes, director of communications for Prison Fellowship. What Colson did was found Prison Fellowship in 1976, with the mission of serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.
One of Prison Fellowship’s programs is Angel Tree, in which volunteers deliver Christmas gifts to the children of incarcerated individuals. Angel Tree was added to Prison Fellowship’s programs in 1982, as a way to help heal the strained relationships that many prisoners have with their families.
“When the kids receive their gifts, it doesn’t say it’s from Prison Fellowship, it says it’s from Mom or Dad,” Forbes, who has delivered gifts himself, explains. “[The kids] get to know that Mom or Dad is thinking of them.”
Here’s how it works: Prison Fellowship notifies prison staff of the gift-giving opportunity; the prisoners then request gifts for their children, facilitated through the staff. In the fall, Prison Fellowship staff review the requests and pass them on to their partner churches and organizations. Volunteers then purchase and distribute gifts to the kids, along with a personal note from the parent in prison. Last year, gift applications came in from 35 facilities across Colorado, says Forbes.
In 2017, 97 local churches partnered with Angel Tree to serve 4,755 Colorado kids. Nationwide, 286,000 children received gifts through Angel Tree. For Christmas 2018, Forbes predicts they’ll serve about 5,000 kids in Colorado.
“[The children of prisoners] are innocent victims, and what the parent did is not their fault,” Forbes says. “There are a lot of blessings in doing this.”
How Families Can Help
If you are part of an organization that would like to be involved with Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, start by registering online. To help with the program in 2019, sign up now, or throughout the summer months. Once your organization is registered, volunteers can:
- Contact the caregivers of children who were signed up for a gift
- Set up and display a tree with children’s names and gift suggestions
- Purchase gifts ($15-$25) for children of prisoners
- Consider hosting an Angel Tree party in a church or community room, and invite the kids who will be receiving the presents
- Wrap gifts
- Deliver gifts
- Get involved in other Angel Tree offerings, including sports clinics, mentoring, and camping throughout the year
- Learn about Prison Fellowship’s other programs to help prisoners and their families under “What We Do” on the website. “We have something for just about every interest,” Forbes says.