For the bulk of the past 10 years, I’ve been on one side of Angel Tree®. As a writer for Prison Fellowship® on a national level, I get to hear and write about all of the amazing things that happen during December and beyond, as children and incarcerated parents around the country reconnect through gifts purchased and delivered by volunteers.
But last year, I crossed over the line to the other side—as an Angel Tree coordinator for my church, where I got to be a part, hands-on and knee-deep. Through the aisles of Target to pick out just the right basketball for a 13-year-old whose stepdad likely won’t be released for another 11 years. Into an apartment building to present that basketball to this very young man, whose demeanor changed from disinterest to curiosity after reading the personalized message. And to my very living room where some friends and I welcomed a single mom who had just been kicked out of her apartment and was doing her best to earn her education while raising a lively 4-year-old.
Suddenly, Angel Tree was personal.
This year, it went from small and personal to large and personal in a quick minute.
It started when I took a leap and emailed my colleague and fellow Indianapolis resident Ruth Sanborn (Angel Tree Support Specialist) about getting my entire church involved and sponsoring maybe 20 to 30 kids in Marion County.
“Let’s dream big!” one of my pastors had encouraged me.
But then, two weeks ago, as it became apparent that some children in my home state had still not been matched with an Angel Tree church, I received an email from one of my local Angel Tree coordinators asking if my church would consider dreaming even bigger by taking on 10 more children. I hesitated for a second, but despite the fact that no more than 140 fill our pews on a Sunday morning, I figured I knew the hearts of my fellow church members.
A day later, I received the names of 40 children. Just slips of paper with names, addresses, dates, and gift requests.
They are real people, my neighbors–many who live no more than 10 minutes from my house—who have either a mother or father serving time, many in an Indiana prison. Some as far away as Georgia, Tennessee, and Minnesota.
The father of one 7-year-old boy is expected to be released next June. The boy will turn 8 a week after his dad gets home. A father whose little 10-year-old girl would like jewelry for Christmas, is expected to be released in 2049. She will be 43 when he comes home.
I comb through the messages from parent to child:
“Daddy love you so much. Be good. Merry Christmas.”
“I apologize for not being there for them and Merry X-mas.”
“Merry Christmas. Mom loves and misses you.”
The messages break my heart.
Not much can be said in space that allows for three short lines of text. I am a mother of a two-year-old and a five-year-old. I cannot fathom being without them for longer than a week, much less for a year. For 43 years. For Christmas.
A MUCH APPRECIATED RESPONSE
I send text messages to caregivers as the election results roll in. Somehow the politics of our nation seem miniscule compared to the realities these families face.
I get responses: “Yes, thank you!” “Much appreciated.”
I verify gift suggestions and addresses and let the caregivers (primarily moms and grandmas) know that they will be receiving an official invitation to a Christmas party in the mail.
And then, last Sunday I put up 20 of the tags on a tree in the foyer of my church, and stand up in front of my congregation urging them to sign up to sponsor these children this Christmas
Twenty minutes after the service ended, the tree was bare.
To be continued …
Today is #GivingTuesday! If you’re interested in giving back by serving Angel Tree families in your community, click here.
Zoe Erler is a writer and editor for Prison Fellowship. In between potty training her 2-year-old and playing superheroes with her 5-year-old, she has the privilege of sharing the stories of many amazing people impacted by crime and incarceration.