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A Prison Fellowship volunteer helps a youngster open Christmas gifts through the Angel Tree program. Angel Tree works with children who have an incarcerated parent.

Angel Tree reaches prisoners and families at Christmas

For American children with an incarcerated parent, Christmas can be bittersweet as they are separated from their imprisoned parent – often by more than 100 miles.

Prison Fellowship is working hard through local churches to make a difference in the lives of these children. Some of them are the children of Kansas and Missouri inmates. In Missouri, over 32,000 individuals are behind bars, while in Kansas the number tops 8,500.

Through its Angel Tree Christmas program, Prison Fellowship for the first time ever will offer the families of 140,000 prisoners it serves a voucher for free copy of the Adventure Bible by Zondervan’s children’s brand, Zonderkidz. The book, both in Spanish and English, will be in addition to the gifts that over 300,000 children in those families will receive this year.

“What better way to show kids the true meaning of Christmas than to offer them God’s word as they open their Angel Tree gifts?” said James J. Ackerman, president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship.”

The ministries countless volunteers feel the same way.

“I never realized how much of a need there was until I got involved with Angel Tree,” says Christina White who volunteers every year for her church’s annual Angel Tree Christmas party. Her role is to facilitate “fun” for the children. She leads the kids in games, makes sure there’s good music, and tries to ensure that everyone enjoys themselves. For Christina, it is time well spent.

“Some families just pick up their gifts and leave,” she says. “But the ones that stay always come back.”

This type of support helps churches reach out to their communities. Prison outreach is one of the most overlooked mnistires in America’s churches.

“We just let them know that we’re a resource,” Christina explains. “Whether it’s Christmas, or any other holiday, or even not a holiday. That we’re here … It’s not only a Christmas holiday-type of impact, but it’s year-round.”

Every Christmas in all 50 states, Angel Tree mobilizes churches to minister to hundreds of thousands of children by delivering a gift and the gospel message to more than 300,000 children with Christmas gifts. Since 1982, Angel Tree has delivered more than 10 million gifts to children on behalf of nearly 4.2 million parents.

“Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program has always been near and dear to the hearts of our team at Zonderkidz,” said Annette Bourland, senior vice president of publishing. “To be able to present The Adventure Bible, in both English and Spanish, to young readers who will find comfort and strength in God’s message for them is a tremendous joy for our team.”

All the caretakers or children have to do receive the bible is fill out an information card and send it back to Prison Fellowship by mail.

Ackerman said that providing a kids Bible provides a better chance that the bibles will be read by multiple members of the family, as opposed to a more advanced Bible where higher literacy skills are required to comprehend the message.

“It is a really beautiful Bible. It has lots of graphics and lots of fun facts and lots of maps and pictures and things like that,” he said. “Hopefully because the Adventure Bible is so engaging, the children will read it as a regular thing, not just as a Bible but as an exploration of God’s truth.”

Ackerman credits the thousands of donors who chip in to make Prison Fellowship’s goal to provide a Bible to each Angel Tree household this Christmas a reality.

“It ranges from people who donated $25 to people who donate hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ackerman explained. “But look, $25 buys a few bibles. So, it’s money well spent.”

In organizing the program, Ackerman said that each year there are more and more kids that are in need of gifts because the prison population keeps increasing. The United States has a incarderation rate that is three times that of the industrialized world. Some churches, Ackerman said, provide as many as 800 to 1,000 kids with gifts.

Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree is the only nationwide, year-round program that reaches out exclusively to children who have a parent in prison. Partner churches also meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of prisoners’ families through ministries like camping and mentoring.

“We are doing really well this year but there is still a gap to be closed and we are still looking for donations,” Ackerman said.

If your church does not yet have an Angel Tree program, you can find out how to start one. To learn more about how to get involved, visit www.angeltree.org or www.prisonfellowship.org.

In both Missouri and Kansas, the Salvation Army also operates an Angel Tree Program locally. To get involved through them, visit www.salarmymokan.org or call 816-756-1455.

JCPenney and The Salvation Army have joined forces and launched an Online Angel Giving Tree Program. Through December 14, customers can adopt and shop online for Angels at www.jcp.com/angel.