The children of the incarcerated receive Christmas joy as a gift

Kevin Almestica recalled unwrapping Christmas presents at the age of five to find his favorite G.I. Joe action figure and a card from his mother, who was currently in Rikers Island Jail.

The children of the incarcerated receive Christmas joy as a gift

The 27-year old Florida-based photographer said, "That brought me great joy thinking she was thinking about me,"

Almestica received her gift from Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program. This nonprofit partners with churches and volunteers to host toys drives and deliver gifts for children in prison. This gift is part of a larger effort by faith groups and churches to bring Christmas cheer and connection to prisoners and their children.

Almestica stated that Angel Tree helped him strengthen his relationship with his mother who died young.

He said, "When I received that gift it kind of restored the hope that my mother still loves me."

Almestica, a prison fellowship volunteer, asked Almestica to take care of Almestica's son.

Mary Kay Beard, an Alabama bank robber, founded Angel Tree in 1980. She noticed that inmates sometimes gave their children toothpaste, soaps, or socks while in prison.

James Ackerman, President and CEO of Prison Fellowship, said that "She realized that if there were volunteers outside who would buy and deliver Christmas gifts for her children and her co-inmates in prison, she could create an amazing experience."

This program is a partnership with prison chaplains that reaches inmates who are interested in sending gifts to their children. They compile information about their favorite toys and send it to thousands of churches that accept donated gifts. Many churches host Christmas parties, where volunteers deliver gifts and personal notes to the children.

We read these notes, and they were like, "Merry Christmas sweetie. I love you so much. I miss you. I know that I will see you soon. Ackerman added, "Don't forget to brush you teeth every night."

Children can also receive children's bibles and sign up for Christian summer camp.

Johnna Hose, a volunteer for Angel Tree since her release in 2010, said that the program can be very important for parents.

Hose, who works at a California drug addiction treatment center, said, "While I was in prison, it was great feeling knowing my children...knew they weren't alone, knowing that there was this inspiration and learning about God."

Her children were given presents by her church, and she took them to summer camp.

She said, "Any child wants to know their parent is thinking of them at Christmas."

Jessica Lopez-Hermantin recalled wondering if she would ever be able to speak with her father again after he was released from prison. Angel Tree gifts were "an affirmation my dad’s love, my father’s constant thinking about me," she stated.

The 33-year old says that the presents should not be a part of a wider effort by parents in prison to build a relationship with their children. Her dad, who is now a Prison Fellowship worker, would tell her Bible stories and talk to her about boys and sports, music, school and her classmates.

She said that little things like this make a big difference. The Angel Tree gift is the cherry on top.

The Salvation Army also offers a program where Christmas gifts are sent to children by their parents who are incarcerated in Minnesota or North Dakota. This initiative, which is separate from the Angel Tree program for low income families run by the Christian organization, was resumed this year. However, it is limited to North Dakota at the moment due to coronavirus restrictions.

Brian Molohon is the executive director of development at The Salvation Army Northern Division. He stated that Prison Toy Lift offers a dignified opportunity for parents to be a part of their child’s life at an important time in the year. It is a tangible gesture of love from the parent incarcerated and brings joy to those who otherwise might only have a painful reminder of their parent's death.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church sent Christmas cards to prisoners. They were signed by members of various congregations. These cards contained encouraging messages.

The Rev. Marilyn Schneider is the ministry's coordinator. "But if your prison cell is locked up, you won't be able to see your family or friends, or anyone else from your outside life, then someone will reach out and say, 'Hey! We're thinking of you. We are praying for you. We are here for you. God loves you" -- I believe it has an impact.

Schneider was able to see the impact of the project through a letter that was sent by a woman who had once received one of these cards.

Schneider quoted Schneider as saying, "I can't describe what that personalized card meant for everyone; you could feel the mood lifting up." "Someone didn't even know me thought about me."

Schneider stated that Schneider was also a former prisoner who told him about the Christmas card he received. Schneider added that many prisoners may not receive any other mail.

Schneider stated that Jesus was passionate about helping those who are marginalized. She hopes that the effort will inspire others to write the cards and to think about prisoners, as well as to find ways to get involved.

One suggestion was made by Chaplain Carmelo Urena.

Urena, director of religious and chaplaincy services at Philadelphia Department of Prisons asked Schneider to make blank Christmas cards for her inmates to send to their loved ones.

He said, "The real punishment is not having the ability to share these special moments your family,"

Urena can relate to that feeling. He said he spent more then two years in prison and reconnected with his faith.

He said, "Faith to me, and to many behind my walls, is almost, as, an early probation." "We have heard about God, but until we are in our predicament, we don't know what God is."

Urena and her wife are volunteers with Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree. They buy and distribute toys and warm clothing.

He said, "I remember the faces of the children." It's so touching.

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