By Rob McDaniel
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Christmas can be a hard time, especially if you have to spend it away from a loved one. In those times, people often have to rely on family to make things a little easier and occasionally, the love and generosity of a total stranger.
For the last 11 years, First Baptist Church in London has participated in a very special ministry, the Angel Tree program, to share the love of Jesus Christ and to help make the holiday season a little brighter for these families.
The church held their annual Angel Tree party on Wednesday night, inviting around 60 children and their caregivers to join them for food, fellowship and presents.
The Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program was founded by Chuck Colson in 1976 for the purpose of reaching out to the children of inmates and their families at Christmas, a time when families should come together.
“I heard about Angel Tree on the radio several years ago, on K-Love, and I felt like God was speaking directly to me. I thought, ‘we need to do this,’” said Kim Smith, director of children’s ministry at FBC.
Through the nationwide program, prisoners sign their child or children up to receive Angel Tree gifts. Through the registry, children are connected with a church in their home area, and that church calls the children’s current caregiver for permission to purchase Christmas gifts for them.
Families can refuse, but according to Smith, not many do.
Each child gets two gifts — one gift of clothing and one toy. The gifts are said to be from the parent, Smith said.
What is perhaps most special to children who participate in FBC’s annual ministry is the personal message to the child written by their incarcerated parent.
Charlie Brock has been participating in the program his whole life.
Charlie, 5, has never been able to spend a Christmas with his dad, who went to jail two days before he was born.
“It’s nice that the kids get to have fun and get a gift from their parent,” said Charlie’s mom, Cathy. “He asked a few times today if we were coming to the church. He was pretty excited.”
Brock is one of many kids in Laurel County who are being raised by single parents or grandparents due to incarceration.
For some of the children, the Angel Tree program is the only form of communication they have with their incarcerated parent.
Sisters Reagan Bowling, 10, and Jessica Bowling, 9, participated in the program for the first time this year, despite their father having been incarcerated for the last five years.
“The girls’ dad went to prison about five years ago,” their mother, Samantha, said. “Where he’s at, in Georgia, they don’t get to use the phones or anything. It’s really good that he gets a picture of the girls because it’s the only way he can see them.”
Earlier that day Jessica had told her mom the only thing she wished for was that her dad could be there to see them open up the presents.
As the girls opened their presents with the rest of the children, they couldn’t help but smile knowing their dad had sent them a present.
“I really liked getting a present from my dad. I was so excited all day,” said Jessica. “I haven’t seen him in a really long time.”
For more information about Prison Fellowship Angel Tree, visit prisonfellowship.org.