For the holiday, the Living Hope Church in the City of San Fernando converted its sanctuary into a Christmas winter wonderland for a special banquet last Saturday, Dec. 19. But the guests weren’t the members of the church; they were, in fact, “the servers.” They waited on those who through no fault of their own are intertwined with the prison system — kids who have an incarcerated parent.
The church staff and members volunteered for “Angel Tree,” the largest national outreach program for the children of prisoners. They added their support for the program and held this event to help 69 children of 27 inmates, and in the process learned, to their surprise, that all of the inmates were from the city of San Fernando, with the exception of one who is from Arleta.
Dressed in their best clothes, the children ranging in age, from babies to teens entered the large beautifully set room. They were greeted with welcoming smiles and directed to sit down at decorated tables with place settings.
They were served a warm brunch while a magical backdrop of snowflakes was projected on a huge screen on stage, and Santa sat ready to receive them. It was important to those that organized the day that the kids would feel “loved.”
Lining the front of the stage were beautifully wrapped presents selected just for them, yet discreetly labeled to respect their privacy.
Through the “Angels Tree” program, holiday events similar to this one are organized because Christmastime can be especially lonely for these youngsters. It’s a time when they can miss their parents the most.
Because prisoners don’t have the capacity to purchase gifts from jail, inmates make the request to sign up for the program. The gifts are purchased on behalf of the inmate for their kids, and presented to the kids as a gift from them. The inmates write a personal message to their children that is placed on a tree sticker attached to the present.
The organization was founded in 1982 by an ex-prisoner who witnessed firsthand the strained relationship between prisoners and their children. One in 28 — or 2.7 million children nationwide — are reported to have a parent who is in prison. This can be especially hard on older children who may hide the truth of the situation because they feel ashamed.
For pastors Sam and Janel Meza, the program was a perfect fit for the mission and philosophy of their church. They readily jumped in after learning about it, and wanted to take it a step further and do more.
“Generally people ‘adopt’ a child and deliver the gift to their home, but that seemed impersonal. We wanted to have them come here and make them feel really special,” Janel said.
That same sentiment was echoed by her husband.
“We’ve had toy giveaways and other events in the past, and I’ve never felt it was right to have people stand in line to receive a gift or food. I just didn’t feel good about that. Having them come here and be served and have some true interaction, this is so much better,” Sam said.
The kids gathered at craft tables, colored holiday cards and tucked them into letters that they wrote to their parents and placed them in a basket. The letters will be turned over to the prison ministry for distribution to the inmates.
One little girl, printing her words in round careful letters told her dad that she received the presents he sent and thanked him. She wished him a Merry Christmas and drew red hearts on the envelope next to his name.
Those who felt comfortable talked about their situations. One woman shared that her husband was sentenced for three years, leaving her alone to care for her five daughters who range in age from 3 to 10. She said because of his immigration status he was sent to federal prison, and would be deported after he completes his sentence.
Lucy Guzman, another young mother, sat with her 3-year- old son who she describes as being “very attached” to her.
“I really worry,” she said. “We go to the park where there are dads playing with their boys. Right now my son is very little so he doesn’t understand, but I really worry about when he gets older and does notice. It’s my biggest fear to think about how he is going to grow up and as he gets older, he is going to ask, ‘where is my dad?’ really worry what the impact will be for him, not having his father to grow up with.”
Guzman explained that her son’s father received a life sentence, and while he hopes to appeal, she knows that it is a very long shot.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even though he didn’t commit the crime he was there and was viewed as an accomplice,” she said. Prior arrests didn’t help his case and placed him in the category for “Three Strikes.”
“He was actually arrested and sent to jail three days before I delivered our son. “ She said this experience had “crushed her to the core.”
“It can be really hard. I can get really angry when I talk to him. I tell him that it’s not about us anymore, it’s about our son.” she said. “I never expected that he would be in prison forever.”
She said that while she does have her parents to help her, her dad is her son’s grandfather and can’t do many of the physical and athletic things that a dad would do with their son. “My father is older so sometimes he can be very lenient, like a grandfather.”
Now, a single parent, Guzman said making ends meet can be a struggle although she knows she is luckier than many in similar circumstances who don’t have any support or family to turn to. She said the gifts that were given to her son at Angels Tree event at the Living Hope Church are a big help.
“I tell him ‘Daddy sent you this,’” Guzman said.”
She is saving the Angel Tree sticker with the message that read:
“I love you with son, with all of my heart and soul. I hope this [gift] will give for you a Merry Christmas…Love Dad.”
Guzman said dealing with her circumstances can be overwhelming and “makes life so much harder.” But, she said it was a boost for her to see that people cared and that there were others like her who face similar challenges that she could meet and talk to.
“I plan on coming back,” she said.