Angel Trees' angelic benefactors

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No fluttering wings! No glittering halos. But these human beings are “angels” nevertheless, Arizona Christians with a heart for kids.

They are the benefactors of the Angel Tree ministry, a function of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship that focuses on the all-but-forgotten children of incarcerated parent(s), parents who can’t provide their child with an array of gifts as in most American homes.  

For 30 years, this national organization has been reaching out to close a gap between an inmate and the children left behind to deepen the bonds between them.

It was founded by Mary Kay Beard, a former prisoner who was confined for six years, and saw firsthand how incarcerated mothers scrambled to find a way to provide a gift for their children at Christmastime. About 75 percent of all incarcerated women are mothers. With 1.7 million children of parents locked up, Beard saw a desperate need for angelic aid to provide assistance so both those confined and their families living outside could celebrate Christmas as much like other families as possible.

Since gifts are delivered in the name of the imprisoned parent, their children realize they aren’t forgotten. Angel Tree is the Body of Christ coming together to deliver the Christmas message to children with a parent in prison. Angel Tree ministers in all 50 states and more than 400 communities.

Partnering with churches since 1982, Angel Tree has provided gifts to the children of imprisoned parents, sharing and “living” the Gospel with them, and bonding parent and child in a caring way despite the long separation. Last year, 307,179 children received a Christmas gift, a message from their imprisoned parent, and a Gospel presentation. This year, Angel Tree aims to served 475,000 such youngsters.

Kathy Marvin is the “angel superior” who heads the local group, and Thursday she broadcast the story of Angel Tree to Southern California, by phone, over a Christian radio station. Her assisting Sierra Vista angels are Suzanne and Dale O’Neill, Hazel and Bob Fisher, Anita Oquita, Jan Shaw, Mary, Howard and Maya Working, Dixie and Gary Larson, Ruth Ann and Bill Huston, Teresa Cornell, Tony Waalkins, John Marvin, Doncella and Larry Leach and Jane Ballard. They are mostly members of the local United Methodist Church. 

Although other churches have been previously involved, it is Sierra Vista United Methodist Church, Shiloh Christian Ministries, Calvary Chapel and Grace United Methodist Church in Douglas that are shouldering the duties this year.

At SVUMC, a literal Christmas tree was decorated with names of 28 children for whom gifts were requested. Those names were claimed quickly by congregants. Now, the Christmas party is to be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Fellowship Hall. Kids will write letters to their parents and be treated to a visit by Santa Claus. Underscoring these events is the story of the Nativity and the joy of Christ’s coming as the greatest gift from God the Father to all humankind.

These families often live “from one crisis to another,” says Marvin. “Many are Christians themselves, so we try to make a difference in the lives of the children at Christmas by sharing that story and the merriment of Christ’s birthday with them.”

The local “angels” host bake and craft sales to fund their events for the children, which includes sending some to summer camp.  It’s a “line item” at SVUMC, she says, and the San Pedro Kiwanis club, Wal-Mart, and Huachuca Oaks Camp have been among the local Angel Tree donors as well. The local angels also keep in touch with prisoners throughout the year. Monetary gifts may be made to Sierra Vista United Methodist Church with “Angel Tree” listed on the memo line.

Contributions “do not directly purchase Christmas gifts.” Every gift connects a chaplain with an inmate. The child is identified, their address is provided, and the gift they might like for Christmas is noted. It also connects the child to a church. It is a very carefully thought-out program to provide the best relationships between parent and child and friends in the community. Angel Tree’s national leadership says the cost to provide one child with a Christmas gift this year is $12.58. For $63, five kids can be feted with a gift. For that amount, Angel Tree will send the donor a 2012 Angel Tree ornament — and $126 reaches 10 children. Angel Tree will send that donor a gift copy of Chuck Colson’s book, “The Good Life.” 

Donors can go online to contribute or send a check to Prison Fellowship at P.O. Box 1550, Merrifield, VA 22116-1550. The national organization is a 501 (c)(3) agency for which gifts are deductible as charitable contributions.

Kathy Marvin keeps in touch with 13 local families and 10 in Douglas throughout the year in order to monitor needs and develop friendship. She has been heading the local group for a dozen years. Her husband, John, takes the pictures, and assists her in all her Angel Tree tasks. 

You may not hear the fluttering of wings as these “angels” minister to kids and their parents in prison, but it is the silent service of very actively compassionate laborers who only want to reflect a bit of the joy of the season with those who might not otherwise savor its richness that you’ll hear in the gratitude of the children and parents they serve.

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