Beyond Prison Walls – Sharing God’s Love with the Children Left Behind

Beyond-Prison-Walls-Angel-TreeIt’s something we rarely think about: a population of children who have parents that are incarcerated — who spend their holidays without a mom or dad. Many times they are overlooked and forgotten.

This is the ministry of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree — the only nationwide, year round ministry that reaches out and caters exclusively to meet the needs of the 2.7 million children in America whose mother or father are incarcerated. And although their Angel Tree program garners much of the church community’s attention during the Christmas season, it is the heartfelt intent of Prison Fellowship to provide for this population at any time of the year, getting the children involved with their local church, finding mentors for them and focusing on providing them with positive role models. Their mission is to help break the intergenerational cycle of crime by being the hands and feet of Jesus for these children.

About Angel Tree
Children who participate in Angel Tree are not only given a gift, but are also given materials that have the gospel message.
“The reason we go through the local churches is for the children to be connected year round,” said Michelle Farmer, spokesperson for Prison Fellowship.

Angel Tree began in Birmingham, Alabama in 1982 by Mary Kay Beard, a former prisoner who watched women in the prison hoarding their toiletries and giving them to their children for Christmas. When she was released from prison and became a believer, her heart was to provide Christmas gifts for these children.

“I realized that children don’t care as much about things as they do about being loved,” said Beard. And so the Angel Tree program was born.

Angel Tree is administered through local churches after an incarcerated parent signs their children up for the program. Angel Tree will then get in touch with the children’s caregiver to determine what their gift wishes are. The children’s names are then displayed on tags, which are placed on a Christmas tree, and congregants can then choose a tag from the tree. Once the gifts are purchased, they are either delivered to the children directly or an Angel Tree party is held where the children have the opportunity to not only receive their gifts but also to have fellowship.

How you can help
Amazingly, about 22%, more than 300,000 annually, of all children of incarcerated parents in the United States receive Christmas gifts through the Angel Tree program. This year, there are about 350,000 children signed up.

“South Florida’s community of churches have been so generous, “ said Farmer. “However, there are other less populous parts of the state that still have a lot of children in need.”

So this year, Prison Fellowship is asking for people in South Florida to help by purchasing gift cards, which will then be distributed to churches across the state for those children who are not yet sponsored. Volunteers will use the gift cards to purchase and then distribute the gifts.

“All you have to do to be involved is purchase one gift card. This is a lifeline to a child whose parent is incarcerated,” said Farmer.

Lives changed
Year after year there are amazing stories of how Angel Tree has changed a child’s life. It’s not just the giving of a gift; it’s a call to see the gospel in action.

This is especially true of one South Florida resident, Christina Allen, whose father was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Christina and her mother felt left behind after her father’s incarceration, and his absence left a huge hole in her heart. But that all changed after a volunteer with Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program showed up at her door with a gift box bearing an angel-shaped tag. Christina says that as the volunteer handed her the box, the words he expressed to her forever changed her life.
“Christina, this is from your dad, and he loves you very much.”

Inside was a beautiful jewelry box. She kept it right beside her bed and filled it with jewelry and other significant keepsakes including the most important thing she wanted to keep safe — the visitor ID card that allowed her to see her father in prison.

“My dad continued to reach out to me the best way he knew how — through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree. Every Christmas, the gifts and the Gospel kept coming. For six more years, I received gifts given by members of a local church on behalf of my dad including a Bible and chocolate kisses that meant so much to me. Slowly, the gifts helped chip away at the pain in my heart and helped mend the broken pieces of our relationship.”

Today, Christina and her husband are giving back by providing gifts to other prisoners’ children through Angel Tree.

“I know the love and comfort I received through Angel Tree helped me achieve my dreams. I’m grateful to Angel Tree, because I know that my father loves me and that God has a beautiful plan for both our lives and for the nearly 3 million kids in America just like me who long to know they are loved by their incarcerated parent and are wanted this Christmas. It all started for me with a gift from Angel Tree.”

To get involved, go to Angel Tree’s website at or call the toll free number at 1-800-55-ANGEL (1-800-552-6435). The deadline for purchasing gift cards this year is December 16.

Melissa Zelniker-Presser is an attorney who is following her God-sized dream of becoming a full time writer. Melissa currently runs a blog and is also working on a non-fiction book detailing her journey to Christ as a Jewish believer. She can be contacted at [email protected]


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