This Christmas, 25,000 children of men and women who are in prison will receive gifts from people they have never met, thanks to a growing project sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, a Christian outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.
Persons wanting to give presents select paper "angels" decorating Project Angel Tree Christmas trees set up in churches and other locations. The angel ornaments bear the name, age, address and gift wishes of youngsters whose parents are incarcerated.
The gifts are collected, wrapped and presented on behalf of the imprisoned parent to the children by Angel Tree volunteers.
"About 20 churches in Los Angeles and Orange counties are participating this year," said Scott Singletary, area director for Prison Fellowship, which is administered by converted Watergate figure Charles W. Colson. "Most of the 1,800 children here who are going to receive gifts have parents in jails and prisons in this area."
Singletary said he had obtained the children's names from Southland prison chaplains.
The Colson Angel Tree program began in 1982 with a project in Birmingham, Ala. This year, it will benefit more than 25,000 children through nearly 900 projects, according to Debbie Bennett, a Prison Fellowship spokeswoman at the organization's headquarters in Reston, Va. Colson founded the organization in 1976.
A former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, Colson was convicted in 1974 for obstructing justice in the Watergate cover-up. He vividly remembers spending Christmas in prison during the seven months he was incarcerated.
"It was painfully frustrating. My heart ached for my family. And my anguish was compounded by the realization that my wife and children were suffering more," he said.
"I'm convinced that the ones who are hurt most are the little children. If daddy is in prison and mommy is on welfare, or working two jobs to make ends meet, Christmas is just another day of the year. How tragic that this should happen to one child, let alone thousands."
For the first time, the Angel Tree program this Christmas will include children in El Salvador. Bennett said volunteers in Washington state sent contributions, and Prison Fellowship International bought and is distributing gifts to children of prisoners in that country.
At First Baptist Church in Reseda, Christian peace officers are joining church volunteers to give a Christmas party tonight for prisoners' families and children whose names were written on cardboard angels adorning the church's 10-foot tree.
"Forty-three children will be getting gifts marked 'Love, Mom,' or 'Love, Dad,' as well as a gift from the church," said Ralph Evans, national director of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, a 3,000-member worldwide association of law enforcement personnel.
A similar interdenominational Angel Tree project for needy children--but whose parents are not necessarily incarcerated--is operated in the San Fernando Valley by a branch of a national organization known as FISH. The local program has been in existence since 1971, the year of the devastating Southern California earthquake.
About 500 needy youngsters will benefit from the FISH Angel Tree project sponsored by nearly 20 churches and synagogues in the west San Fernando Valley.
Collected at Church
According to volunteer Marcia Givvins, persons obtaining information from the angel ornaments on trees set up in banks, schools, offices and shopping malls bought gifts that were collected Friday at St. John Eudes Catholic Church in Chatsworth. The gifts, along with food baskets, will be given Monday.
FISH, which stands for the ancient Christian symbol first used by believers in the Roman catacombs, is a nationwide network of volunteers who assist the poor with food, clothing and transportation. June Nelson of Chatsworth heads this year's West Valley Angel Tree project.
The Salvation Army is among other religious groups that use Angel Trees to collect gifts and share the Christmas spirit. Locally, a tree set up in the Sherman Oaks Galleria is staffed by the army's San Fernando Valley Corps Community Center.
Each ornament carries a child's first name, age and clothing size. Passers-by pick up an ornament, register it with the Salvation Army officers and return later with the gift-wrapped clothes and toys. The mound of packages under the tree grows until the army collects them for Christmas delivery.