Connecting Families Through the Love of Jesus
In 2014, Scott Heald, was looking for a special project for his Olive Baptist Sunday School class. Because of his work with inmates, Scott, the Administrator of the Most Excellent Way, Jail and Homeless Ministries for Ministry Village at Olive, was sensitive to the challenges families face when a parent is in jail. The Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship®, seemed like the right project for his group. That year, Ministry Village and Scott’s class hosted their first Angel Tree Banquet, sharing the love of Jesus with the children of incarcerated parents. Planning is underway now for this year’s event – their fifth banquet – and the class couldn’t be more excited.
Prison Fellowship® is an international organization dedicated to restoring those affected by crime and incarceration. The Angel Tree Program began in 1982 as an outreach specifically designed to focus on the relationship between those in jail and the children they left behind. According to the Angel Tree website, “1 in 28 American children lives with the shame of a parent’s incarceration; that’s one boy or girl in every classroom.” The Angel Tree Program provides an opportunity to bridge the divide between parents behind bars and their children by connecting families with donors who want to make a difference.
Organizations and churches that partner with Angel Tree receive a list of area children whose incarcerated parent has signed up to participate. Inmates list specific gifts or provide their children’s interests along with ages, clothing sizes, etc. Donors then shop for the gifts and deliver them to the children. Scott wanted Ministry Village at Olive to have a more personal touch, so the idea of the Angel Tree Banquet in Pensacola was born. Volunteers from Scott’s Sunday School class shop for the children, wrap and tag the gifts, and package them for distribution. A message to the child from the incarcerated parent is also included with each gift.
Children and their caregivers are invited to a party held in Passmore Hall at Olive Baptist Church. “It’s a birthday party – a Happy Birthday Jesus Party,” said Anne Berryhill, one of the Pensacola banquet organizers. Volunteers shop, decorate, and place special goody bags of candy and toys at each place setting. Guests are treated to a child-friendly lunch that ends with a special dessert. “Each child receives ice cream, and a cupcake with a candle. The table hosts light the candles and then we all sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. It’s a very special time that all the kids really seem to love.” Then Santa Claus makes an appearance, visits with each child, and distributes the personalized gifts.
Anne and her husband, Carl, have been involved in the Ministry Village Angel Tree Banquet every year since it began, and they look forward to it. Anne remembers one family with 3 boys whose dad was in prison. “Their aunt brought them 2 years in a row, and they all really loved it. Then the third year, only 2 boys came. As I talked with her, she shared with me that her other nephew had cancer, and she asked us to pray for him. We kept in touch over the next few months. She texted me that his cancer had been diagnosed and a treatment plan had been made, and she asked that we continue to keep him in prayer. Finally, a text came that he was cancer-free. His aunt really appreciated the prayers, and it meant a lot to be able to follow the outcome of a family that we had seen so often.” Anne says every table host has touching stories about the children and families they meet each year.
In Pensacola, the Ministry Village Angel Tree Banquet has grown from inviting 70 children to the first banquet to inviting 110 children in 2017. Anne says her whole Sunday School class loves being a part of the Ministry Village Angel Tree Banquet, and explains that it is a true group effort. “It’s a lot of work to plan, shop, decorate, setup. But we’re able to sit at those tables and talk to those families, offer them comfort and hope – even help meet their needs, like helping them find counseling and support. It’s a lot of work to do the banquet – but it’s so very worth it.”
🎁 The Ministry Village Angel Tree Banquet is held every year in early December. If you’d like to donate to help provide gifts for participating children, please contact Scott Heald at Ministry Village (850) 475-1112 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
🎁 To learn more about The Angel Tree Program and Prison Fellowship®, click here.