By Joyce Coronel
For hundreds of children in Tempe with one or both parents in prison, the holidays can be a time when they wonder if their mom or dad still loves them.
The Angel Tree Project has been answering that question with a resounding yes for the last 30 years.
Founded by a former inmate who witnessed the strained relationship between prisoners and their families, the program reaches beyond prison walls to spread holiday cheer and a reminder that a mother or father’s love is enduring.
Kelly Teters helps lead the effort at Arizona Community Church where members of the congregation joined forces to help 100 children in Tempe have a merry Christmas.
It all starts when Angel Tree Project representatives interview inmates who sign up for the program to find out what the children would want as gifts. Each child receives a clothing gift and a toy or fun item, Teters said. Then, church volunteers call caregivers to verify the kids’ Christmas wishes.
“Sometimes the kids want something different,” Teters said. “They also get a message from
their mom or dad that says ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘I miss you and love you.’”
Church volunteers fill out tags that get hung on a Christmas tree in time for the Thanksgiving Eve service. That’s when churchgoers pick out a tag and start shopping, many taking advantage of the Black Friday bargains to help give Santa a boost for his buck.
This is the second year that Marilyn Mooneyham and her husband Dennis have volunteered to help with the Angel Tree Project at Arizona Community Church. The couple has eight families this year and two of those have 10 children apiece. In many cases, caregivers are unavailable by phone and so the Mooneyhams visit the family in person to verify those special Christmas wishes.
“It kind of takes my breath away just being able to assist and helping a family celebrate that maybe wouldn’t have been able to,” Marilyn said. “I think for me it’s just recognizing that these people are living with trauma all the time, with a family member in prison. Some of them are mothers.”
Basketballs and footballs are frequent requests, but so are jackets and Lego building blocks, Marilyn said. “I remember one little gal just wanted a special dress.”
Before the hundreds of packages get delivered though, there’s a huge wrapping party at Arizona Community Church where volunteers indulge in Christmas cookies and listen to Christmas tunes as they put together a mountain of packages. Each child receives a Bible, too. Still more volunteers help deliver the gifts.
In addition to the gift requested, church members often add still more. Instead of just the requested new shirt, they might include a pair of pants and pair of shoes as well.
“They go above and beyond what was requested,” Teters said. “It’s so nice to see what God is doing in our church. It’s an eye-opener to see how much love there is.”