Washington Post article
December 21, 1991

Holiday Spirit Shines on Needy Youngsters

Christmas ‘Angels’ Seek Out Children Of Prison Inmates

by Carey Kinsolving

Angels descended upon the Washington area last Saturday. They didn’t have halos, wings or white garments, but they did have a heavenly mission that was welcomed by more than 4,000 area children whose parents are in jail.

The angelic mission: to demonstrate God’s unconditional love by giving Christmas gifts to those who cannot repay.

It’s part of a program called Angel Tree. The program’s sponsors write the needs of children on angel-shaped tags that are placed on special Christmas trees at churches and shopping malls across the country. The tags bear the children’s first names only, their needs and, if appropriate, their sizes.

An “angel” in the form of a Christmas gift-giver takes a tag off the tree, buys something for the child and puts the gift in a designated place.

One angel, Carly Estes, 8, pulled a cardboard angel off the Christmas tree at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield last Saturday. It read: “Pamela, Age – 7 months, sweat suit, size 24 months.” Carly used money given by her grandfather for making A’s and B’s on her report card to buy Pamela’s gift.

Pamela’s mother, Michelle Leake, 25, received Carly’s gift with gratitude. She has just moved into a new apartment, but is unemployed. “Things are pretty rough right now,” Leake said.

Both Immanuel Bible Church and Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast Washington have prison ministries, so they agreed to work together in distributing the gifts.

For the last five years Allen Chapel AME Church has put on an Angel Tree Christmas party. Last Saturday, children of prisoners, along with adults – sometimes a parent, but often an aunt or grandmother – sang Christmas carols and ate fried chicken and hot dogs.

The Rev. Larrie Williams started the program by stating the ultimate purpose of the Angel Tree party: “We’re here to receive gifts because God has given us the best gift, his son, Jesus Christ.”

Mojisola Akinbolajo, 9, prayed for the children, and “Amens” were heard when she asked God to stop the violence.

Eyes opened wide and children scurried when their names were called to come to the back of the room to receive gifts. Two-year-old twins, Kevin and Keith, looked like miniature Santa Clauses as they dragged their bags of three gifts back to their tables.

Last year, the twins’ mother was fatally stabbed. Mona Lisa Gaffney, the twins’ great aunt, is rearing them along with her brother’s daughter.

Seeing the joy on Kevin’s and Keith’s faces moved Gaffney to tears. Gaffney’s hours have been cut at the hotel where she works as a maid, and she didn’t know how she was going to buy gifts this year. “This is what Christmas is all about, giving and sharing – just being concerned about another human being.”

Through the Angel Tree program, relationships are developed that transcend the once-a-year giving. A few weeks ago, Gaffney received a box of clothes for her twins from one of the Angel Tree coordinators at Immanuel, Sharon Jensen.

After supervising the distribution of hundreds of gifts, Jensen went shopping Saturday night, but not for herself. The pastor of Allen Chapel AME, the Rev. Leon Lipscombe, told her about the needs of a family of nine.

By the next morning, Jensen had 60 gifts wrapped and ready to go: outfits for the older children, games for the younger ones and stockings stuffed with all kinds of goodies. Even the best of Santa’s elves would be pressed to match Jensen’s output.

Typically, each gift in the Angel Tree program is given in the name of the prisoner. But since this family had no one in jail, Jensen wrote on each name tag: “From Jesus.”

The Angel Tree concept began when a former inmate, Mary Kay Beard, remembered her own experience of watching women in prison trying to fulfill their roles as mothers.

Two shopping mall managers in Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., agreed to allow Beard to set up Angel Trees. Her 1982 experiment, which is now a part of the Prison Fellowship started by former Nixon White House lawyer Charles W. Colson, has mushroomed into a nationwide movement with 5,200 churches sponsoring Angel Trees and 140,000 children receiving gifts in 1990.