By Susan H.
On December 14, 2018, I volunteered to be a part of an Angel Tree Christmas party for the children of incarcerated parents. I had heard about these events that give Christmas gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parent, but due to my busy schedule I previously hadn’t been able to attend. After my experience in December, I will now make it an annual priority! It will remain one of my most cherished memories serving in a ministry.
As I walked through the doors to serve at Saddleback Church’s Anaheim campus, I immediately felt a spirit of joy and celebration from all of the volunteers. We had the unique privilege of walking alongside various caregivers, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who raise the children left behind by imprisoned parents. The event team had decorated the church into a Christmas wonderland for these families. At the door they were welcomed with a Christmas caroling team and greeters. The children were immediately given red Christmas stockings, which by the end of the night were full of little toys and candies.
I spoke to several families who told me how much the children look forward to the Angel Tree celebration each year—a meaningful tradition. I heard many expressions of gratitude for the churches that serve in this way. Several families expressed how much they want to stay connected to the church throughout the year.
The children enjoyed playing games with the volunteers, receiving face painting and hair coloring, and making crafts and Christmas cards for their mom or dad in prison. Everyone also enjoyed a meal together in the main sanctuary along with worship and many stage presentations. I was reminded of the Nutcracker play through all of the scenes of hip-hop dancers, a magician, and a special performance from a local high school choir.
The whole night felt like a red-carpet event for these families. I will never forget one special moment. During the event’s grand finale, the volunteers brought the children their Christmas gifts in the name of their mom or dad in prison. I remember the look on the face of an 8-year-old boy who received a gift from his daddy. Upon receiving the gift from a volunteer, he placed it on the table and then lovingly wrapped his arms around the present and embraced it as if the gift were his dad. He then placed his head on top of the gift, closed his eyes, and a wide smile spread across his face. He lovingly received the gift from his father.
Most children, upon receiving a gift, cannot wait to tear off the pretty wrapping paper to see the gift inside. However, at the Angel Tree Christmas party the majority of the children chose to take their gifts home unopened, to save them for Christmas morning. As I watched that 8-year-old boy hug the present from his daddy I realized that Angel Tree was providing a loving way for these children to not feel abandoned. It made me cry when I thought of my own children and how much I want them to feel cared for.
I was so touched by the gratitude from these families that after the party I did some research. The beauty and wonder of the Christmas season can easily be taken for granted. For most of us, the Christmas season is filled with family gatherings, food, gifts, decorations, and wonder. But my research found that in America, 2.7 million children (1 in 28) have a parent that is incarcerated, and the majority of the children left behind live in poverty.
Angel Tree gives us the opportunity to bring the magic of Christmas to an entire family. We can’t fill the void that an absent parent leaves, but we can bring the food, caring volunteers, gifts, hope, and the wonder of Christmas to a child in need one day a year. In this way we strive to alleviate feelings of abandonment and the belief that the world is only a harsh place.
I have served in many different ministries throughout the years. I must say, though, that the unique privilege of witnessing the joy and happiness in the faces of the children and their caregivers at an Angel Tree Christmas party will always be a cherished memory for me.