Christmas is a time when families gather to celebrate and share the warmth of holiday cheer, but for thousands of Arizona children someone important is missing from all the fun. That’s because a father or mother sits in prison.
Whether it’s the family’s first Christmas apart or just the latest in a long succession of heartaches, this year some of these children have reason to smile. And it’s all thanks to parishioners at St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church.
The Tempe church’s Angel Tree giving project got parishioners into the seasonal spirit by asking them to collect food items, clothing and toys for the children of 10 families of the incarcerated the parish was sponsoring. Prisoners request gift items they believe their children would want to receive. The effort is part of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, a national organization that assists the children of prisoners and their families.
There are currently 2.7 million children in the U.S. who have a parent behind bars.
Eileen Flock, St. James’ youth minister and the person responsible for organizing the project, said it’s ultimately about sharing God’s love. Whether the gifts consist of sports equipment or items such as earrings or nail polish for the girls, sponsored kids receive something their parents yearn to give them during the holidays: a tangible sign of their love. For youth group members, it makes for a great perspective.
“I think they enjoy it because they actually get to see it firsthand and see the project from start to finish. They get to see some of the kids and interact with them,” Flock said.
Pastor Susan Wilmot of St. James agreed.
“It’s absolutely vital. They feel so good about helping the families,” Wilmot said.
“Here at St. James, it’s certainly one of our goals to focus on ministries for children and families, and outreach generally. We really feel that it’s the most important part of being church in this tough world.”
At a time when many are fixated on what they’ll be receiving, children at St. James are learning about the happy feeling they get by giving.
“The joy is in the giving,” Wilmot said. “Many of the families do it because they want their children to see how important it is to give.”
A special celebration for Angel Tree families was held Dec. 11 after the 10:30 service.
Youth group members and the sponsored children enjoyed games, coloring pages, Bible stories and good, old-fashioned fun together.
“Our kids say to them, ‘You’re my friend—I saw you last year!’ Some of these families we get over and over and again.
“Our youth group gets to see that these are kids just like them,” Flock said.