Every year The Prison Fellowship Program provides incarcerated people with applications to send Christmas gifts to their children through the Angel Tree program.
Kevin Almestica recalls a Christmas 22 years ago, when he got his favorite GI Joe action heroes as a gift. Enclosed with the gift was a note from his mother, who was away at New York’s Ryker’s Island serving a prison sentence.
“That brought me great joy thinking that she was thinking of me,” said Almestica. He is now a 27-year-old photographer living in Florida.
Almestica was one of many fortunate children whose parents participated in the Angel Tree program of Prison Fellowship. The fellowship is a non-profit that works with local churches and other volunteers who participate in toy drives and help deliver toys to children.
Children receive toys listed on an order form that is filled out by their incarcerated parent. The purpose is for parents and their children to feel closer to each other during the Christmas Season and to let them know they are not forgotten.
Almestica says that the gift his mother set in motion for him when he was five years old helped him feel connected to her.
“When I got the gift, it kind of restored that hope that my mom still loved me,” said Almestica.
Almestica’s mother didn’t have anyone to take care of him when she was incarcerated, and fearing he would be thrown in foster care, she asked a prison fellowship volunteer if they could raise him, said Almestica. When he became an adult he started sponsoring children through the same program.
The original Angel Tree was founded in the early 80s by Mary Kay Beard, who was doing time for bank robbery in Alabama. She noticed that incarcerated people purchased items from canteen to give to their children as Christmas presents.
“She realized that if she could find some volunteers on the outside who would purchase and deliver Christmas gifts to her children and the children of her colleagues in prison that she could create a very wonderful experience,” said James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. The program is now nationwide.
Prison Fellowship works with chaplains at prisons to provide prisoners with applications to request gifts for their children.
The wish lists are dispersed to thousands of churches which receive the gifts as donations. The gifts are then combined with greetings from the child’s parents.
“We read these notes and they’re like, ‘Merry Christmas, sweetie, I love you so much. I miss you. I know I will see you soon. And don’t forget to brush your teeth every night,’” Ackerman said.
The charitable organizations also provide Bibles and applications for attendance at Christian summer camps.
“The program can be crucial for parents,” said Johnna Hose, a former prisoner volunteering with Angel Tree.
“While I was incarcerated, it was a great feeling knowing that my kids … knew that they weren’t alone, knowing that there is this inspiration and learning about God,” said Hose.
“Any kid wants to know that their parent is thinking about them at Christmas time,” she said.
Jessica Lopez–Hermantin often thought about speaking to her father upon his release. Angel Tree provided “an affirmation of my dad’s love, my dad’s constant thinking of me,” she said.
Lopez-Hermantin believes that the presents help to build and maintain bonds between parents and their children. She reflects on the interaction that she had with her father and how his reaching out to her through these gifts or cards reinforced their relationship.
“Little things like that make a difference,” she said. “The Angel Tree gift is just the icing on the cake.”