There's probably nothing that gnaws at an incarcerated parent more than the idea they cannot provide for or be available to their child at Christmas. However, one national organization, Angel Tree, is diligently working to bridge the time, distance and emotional gaps by providing gifts and the Gospel.
The Rev. James Murray, South Carolina Prison Fellowship's field director, has been state Angel Tree coordinator for 13 years. He says the mission is about the transformation of children's futures, lives and families.
"These children are often invisible to our communities," Murray said. "Statistically, the U.S. Department of Justice shows that children with incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to end up in prison than those that don't."
"Our goal at Angel Tree is multifold, including fostering a relationship between the child and parent so that these families feel connected to their communities," he said. "Then the child feels that there are people outside their family that care about them."
At least six churches in Calhoun and Orangeburg counties are Angel Tree sponsors this year, providing gifts of clothing and a toy, plus an age-appropriate Bible, to each child.
Murray says the process starts off with an application from the parent channeled through chaplain's offices at state, federal and some county penal facilities.
"The application petitions the child's guardian or caregiver to allow a gift from the incarcerated parent," Murray said. "Once we get that application, we process that to local churches and civic organizations. They contact the caregiver and the family."
Although the way each Angel Tree sponsor church handles the gift donation process is different, the results are the same.
Andrews Chapel United Methodist Church member Juanita Miles-Felix coordinates the effort for her St. Matthews congregation. She says this is the ninth year the church has participated in the Angel Tree program.
"We usually serve somewhere between 45 and 65 children each year," Miles-Felix said. "We start assigning sponsors to the children. They can donate money or purchase the gifts."
"In addition, we hold a Christmas party for the kids, during which we give away the gifts," she said. "We combine that with food, Christian entertainment and singing, a message from our pastor and a skit. It's a fun time for them."
Although sponsor churches usually get names of children in their zip code, St. Paul's United Methodist Church Angel Tree coordinator Norma Sells says her church is buying for another community.
"All our children are in Spartanburg this year," Sells said. "We will do the gifts and deliver them to a church there. I think someone mixed up the 'burgs, but we have done (Angel Tree) for about 10 years. We'll serve these children wherever they are."
Episcopal Church of the Redeemer Angel Tree coordinator Hope Larisey, wife of the church's rector, the Rev. Dr. Frank Larisey, says participating in the program means going above and beyond.
"There are often other children in the home besides the child we have, so we just get gifts for all the kids," Larisey said. "It's a wonderful experience, talking to the caretakers. They are very honest. If they don't need anything special, they will tell you, but if they have any special needs, they'll mention that, too.
"By talking to them, it makes you feel how God is using you to bless someone's life."
April Fogle has been Angel Tree coordinator for Calvary Baptist Church in Neeses for three years. She says participating in the ministry is always as rewarding for the volunteers as the children.
"I've always had positive response," Fogle said. "It warms your heart to know you can help the parent, who is not able to be with the child for Christmas, and then the kids. It creates more good memories for them, and that makes a difference in their lives."
Murray, the S.C. coordinator, says the real benefit of Angel Tree for the children sometimes lasts far beyond the holiday. One Angel Tree recipient as a child later became a coordinator in Union County.
"There are situations where the family met the volunteers at the sponsor church, and they became active members," Murray said. "They began participating in the church events, and a member even became the child's mentor."
Matching a donor to every available child in the area can be difficult, especially during hard economic times. Murray says Angel Tree is in a situation where approximately 1,300 children in South Carolina and 50,000 nationally will not be served.
"Orangeburg County, where we average about 600 to 700 children, has always been a challenge because of its size," Murray said. "Bamberg and Calhoun are also challenging counties. Although the number of children there is not as high, they are rural counties."
There are approximately 200 to 300 Angel Tree sponsor churches in South Carolina, but Murray said it would take 300 to 400 churches to fill the demand.
"We, as a culture, are most likely to have passion for those far away than across the street," he said. "And it usually takes a local person to champion the cause, and we are looking to champion. That's where our success lies."
Individuals can still purchase a gift package for $35.20 at angeltree.org through Christmas. Churches who wish to sign up as 2010 Angel Tree sponsors can also do so online by selecting "Get Involved" or by calling 1-800-55-ANGEL.