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December 20, 2003
Column #1,164

This Christmas 28,000 Kids Could Be Forgotten

     When Steve 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..

     Then he 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."

     In the 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 prison.

     Just 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.

     "My kids 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 told me.

     There are 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.

     This week 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 poor.

     However, on Christmas Day, Catholic nuns arrived with gifts and a turkey. She described the event as pivotal, "restoring my hope and faith."  

     The sense 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.

     "But Angel 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.

     Today 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.

     One 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.  

     In this 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.

     "I know it will, because it made a difference in my life. It changed my life," she replied.

     Currently, 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?  

     Call 800 552-6435 to pledge $20 for a child.

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