The first part of this story appeared here.
The weather threatened to cancel the party. Temperatures hovered below freezing, the roads a mess the evening before. At 7 in the morning, we weren't even sure church would proceed as normal. But we moved forward with our plans, hoping to welcome more than 30 Angel Tree kids and their families that afternoon.
At noon, the volunteers began arriving, laden with Christmas cookies and beautifully wrapped presents for those who would hopefully be arriving in an hour. The church gym was decorated as festively as a gym can be—with a Christmas tree in the corner sparkling with lights, tables for decorating cookies or writing letters to incarcerated parents. Even a Christmas photo booth!
THE PARTY BEGINS
At 1 p.m., the first family arrived, escorted by a member of my church who had picked them up, because their original ride had bailed. Over the next several minutes, my fears of having a poor turnout were allayed as families continued to trickle in.
A little girl from my church ran up to an Angel Tree child about her age, grabbed her hand, and took her to one of the activity tables. Teenagers from the youth group showed little ones how to decorate Christmas cookies. Volunteers engaged caregivers in conversation over punch, snacks, and desserts.
At 2, our new assistant pastor introduced himself.
"Hi, I'm Taylor, and I think I can understand a little bit of what you're going through. When I was a kid, my dad spent some time in prison too.
"Before you open the gifts from your parents, I want to make sure you know about the best Christmas gift …"
Taylor had been an easy selection to be the person to share the Gospel message with the families.
THE BEST CHRISTMAS GIFT
Eyes sparkled as children opened gifts from their incarcerated parents. Some tore the paper off. Others carefully and slowly unwrapped their gifts. Basketballs. Jewelry. Dolls. Legos. Books. Each gift had been carefully selected with its recipient in mind.
"Thank you so much," a 12-year-old boy told me, shaking my hand. His grandmother teared up as she tried to express what the event meant to her. I learned later that she was fighting a battle with cancer. It was her son who was in prison.
Another woman told me that she had been looking for a church and was glad to have found ours. "It just seems really down-to-earth."
As the event neared its end, youth began pushing back chairs and tables, and a casual game of basketball breaks out. A caregiver mom makes a basket and everyone cheers.
After the party was over, I couldn't help but take a peek at a few of the notes children wrote to their parents. One in particular stood out:
"Dear dad, I can't wait to see you. I miss you so much. I appreciate you inviting me. I cried twice. I love you dad!"
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.
Photos courtesy of Rod Jamison.