Kevin Almestica recalls unwrapping a Christmas present at age 5 to find his favorite G.I. Joe action figure with a card from his mom who was serving time at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex.
“That brought me great joy thinking that she was thinking of me,” said the 27-year-old Florida-based photographer.
Almestica’s gift was sent by the Angel Tree program of Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit which partners with churches and volunteers to host toy drives and deliver gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. It’s part of an effort by some faith groups and congregations to bring Christmas cheer — and connection — to prisoners and their kids.
Angel Tree, Almestica said, helped strengthen a bond with his mother, who died when he was young.
“When I got that gift, it kind of restored that hope that my mom still loved me,” he said.
His mom didn’t want him to grow up in the foster care system and asked a woman who was volunteering with Prison Fellowship to raise him, Almestica said.
Today, Almestica sponsors kids in the program so they can also get presents.
Angel Tree was founded in the 1980s by Mary Kay Beard, a bank robber who, while imprisoned in Alabama, noticed how inmates would sometimes give their kids toothpaste, soaps or socks for Christmas.
“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, which expanded the program nationwide.
The program works with prison chaplains to reach inmates interested in sending gifts to their children. After collecting information on their preferred toys, they send this wish list to thousands of churches that collect donated gifts. Some churches organize Christmas parties where volunteers deliver gifts to children with personalized notes from their incarcerated parents.
“We read these notes and they’re like, ‘Merry Christmas, sweetie, I love you so much. I miss you. I know I’ll see you soon. And don’t forget to brush your teeth every night,’” Ackerman said.
Kids also get children’s Bibles and can sign up for Christian summer camps.
The program can be crucial for parents, said Johnna Hose, who has volunteered for Angel Tree since her release from prison in 2010.
“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, who works for a drug addiction treatment center in California.
Her children received presents through her local church and attended summer camp.
“Any kid wants to know that their parent is thinking about them at Christmas time,” she said.
Jessica Lopez-Hermantin recalls wondering whether she would ever speak to her father again after he went to prison. Angel Tree gifts were “an affirmation of my dad’s love, my dad’s constant thinking of me,” she said.