By LINDA M. LINONIS
Many Santa Clauses step forward during this season of giving to ensure a nice Christmas for those in need.
Angel Tree ministry focuses on a group that might be overlooked: It provides Christmas gifts to children of inmates.
Tony Lape, a member of St. Patrick Church since he was baptized, coordinates the project at the church. “It’s been here about 12 years,” he said.
Angel Tree is a program of Prison Fellowship, a Christian prison ministry founded by Chuck Colson, who pleaded guilty to Watergate-related charges in 1974 and served seven months in an Alabama federal prison. The website, www.prisonfellowship.org, said the fellowship’s goal is to “evangelize prisoners and restore families through faith-based reentry programs.”
Angel Tree, now in its 30th year nationwide, was developed by Mary Kay Beard, who spent six Christmases in an Alabama prison for bank robbery. In 1982, she became the first Alabama state director of Prison Fellowship and developed this Christmas program.
In Mahoning County, Lape works with Mary Lou Lebron, who said she became involved in the program because two family members had been incarcerated. “I found out about the program and started working with it,” she said.
Along with St. Patrick, participants are St. Charles Borromeo Church in Boardman, Gospel Temple Baptist Church in Campbell, Victory Christian Center in Coitsville and NewBirth Kimmelbrook Baptist Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Lebron said the Angel Tree program helps between 600 to 700 families in Mahoning County. Lape said St. Patrick usually has between 90 and 100 names. Children range from newborn to age 16.
Lape said the program begins with an effort by a prisoner, who must fill out an application. The inmate must provide contact information, where the children are living, ages and gender. Lape said once he receives the information in late October, he makes a list and then contacts the caregivers by letter followed by phone calls in November. “Dozens of calls are made to find out needs and wants,” he said, adding a team of church members assist.
The gifts, he said, go to children of Mahoning County inmates incarcerated in Mahoning County Jail and Ohio prisons. This Angel Tree program helps children, mostly from Mahoning County, but some in Trumbull and Columbiana counties, Lape said. “It’s not the kids’ fault, what happened with the parents,” Lape said. “This helps makes Christmas that much happier.”
Lape said he assigns a code number to each child on his list, and writes the name and number on an angel along with gift suggestions and other pertinent information. “I’ve learned over the years to ask the ‘right’ questions to get to what the kids really need and want,” he said. He noted teens appreciate gift cards.
“There are a lot of heart-wrenching stories,” Lape said.
The Rev. Edward Noga, St. Patrick pastor, said, “It’s easy to get cynical about offenders. But their children are innocent.”
The pastor also said the Angel Tree program is “well organized.” He added the program has a “great system” of confirming that the gifts went to the intended recipients.
Lape said church members who take the angels are asked to spend between $30 and $50 on each child. “We have people who take multiple angels,” he said. “They know there’s a need, and love to help.”
Lape collects the gifts at the church and checks his list. The Christmas packages go to Gospel Temple, where Lebron belongs, for distribution. “When someone is incarcerated, the family is a victim, too,” Lebron said. “The Christmas season is about love and this is a way to show it.”