December 20, 2003
This Christmas 28,000 Kids Could
Despain was in a California prison in 1988, he wanted to give Christmas
gifts to his stepchildren. But that seemed impossible. First, he had no
money. And even if he did, he had no way to go to a store to buy gifts and
give them to his kids who lived two hours away..
read about a program called Angel Tree in which Christians buy gifts for the
children of inmates, in "Jubilee," a magazine of Prison Fellowship for
prisoners. He thought, "This is something I'd like to do for my kids, to
show them I am still alive, and that I want to keep a connection with my
family. Christmas is hard on families (when a member is incarcerated),
especially if they are destitute."
magazine was a form for an inmate to indicate the names, addresses and ages
of their "angels" whose names would be hung on a Christmas Tree in a church
near his home. Church members would pick the names of a child or two off the
tree, and deliver gifts in the name of their father or mother who is in
before Christmas church volunteers showed up at Steve Despain's home with
presents - a bike for Jason, then aged 7, and toys and clothes for Amber, 4.
The children were told the gifts were from their Dad, who wished he could
deliver them in person.
were excited, my wife told me. It touched my heart that people would go to
the extent they did to help me develop my relationship with my kids," he
nearly 2.2 million prisoners in America's local jails and prisons and 2.5
million children of prisoners. They are the innocent - but invisible -
victims of crime. They committed no wrong, but are sentenced to live
without that absent parent.
Oprah Winfrey told of a Christmas Eve at age 12, when her mother told her
and two stepbrothers that they would have to "skip Christmas this year,"
because she could not afford presents. Oprah was not so disappointed at not
receiving gifts as she was embarrassed to realize that her family was really
on Christmas Day, Catholic nuns arrived with gifts and a turkey. She
described the event as pivotal, "restoring my hope and faith."
of abandonment a child of a prisoner feels is more profound than Oprah's
anguish. It is not just a Christmas without gifts, but typically years of
absence of a father. As Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship
says, "These little ones are the overlooked victims of crime - and they are
at the greatest risk of any kids to become prisoners themselves one day.
Tree helps them to know that someone cares for them. In addition to showing
that love through giving gifts, Angel Tree volunteers share the Gospel with
these kids and their families," said Colson, a former White House aide to
President Nixon who went to prison for Watergate-related crimes. His
ministry will deliver Angel Tree gifts to 600,000 kids this year.
Steve Despain owns a small pest control company and is a volunteer
co-director of Angel Tree in San Luis Obispo, California. He helped
organize 32 Angel Trees churches to bless children of 400 prisoners.
Volunteers call family members and ask what kind of gifts the kids would
like. Typically, two gifts are bought per child at a cost of $20 to $30.
volunteer who delivered gifts last week was so shocked at the destitution of
a family that on Sunday she asked her church to donate funds, and raised
$2,500. Some of the money will provide immediate relief, but part will be
set aside to provide on-going help. Angel Tree now offers summer camp
programs for children of inmates.
Christmas season, Oprah took gifts to African children, orphans who lost
their parents to AIDS. Cameras recorded her giving brightly wrapped
gifts - footballs (that Americans call "soccer balls") to boys, and
dark-skinned dolls for girls. An interviewer asked Oprah whether receiving
a single present could mean much to children who had lost their parents.
it will, because it made a difference in my life. It changed my life," she
there are 28,000 American children of prisoners who are "unclaimed" because
of a shortage of volunteers and churches. Will you help make sure that each
of these children receive a gift?
552-6435 to pledge $20 for a child.