By Dianne Frazee-Walker
Most people can remember when Christmas meant getting up at dawn and running to the Christmas tree in our pajamas excited to see what was under the tree and in the stockings hanging on the mantel.
For children who have parents who are incarcerated, Christmas is not filled with visions of lollipops dancing in their heads; in fact, December 25th is just another day without their parents and can be even more depressing than any other day of the year.
Children who are missing a parent because they are spending time in prison are not only left to deal with loneliness they feel from having an absent parent, but also face ridicule and stereotyping. Many of these lost children are told they are going to turn out just like their parent that is incarcerated.
New Hope, a program created about 20 years ago by the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma is taking a more positive approach for addressing the needs of children who have at least one parent in prison. Instead of reminding children they have no chance of turning out to be productive citizens, they are encouraged to pursue an education. The children are led down a different path than their parents followed.
On Dec. 21, New Hope hosted a Christmas party at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa. Children whose holidays would have been filled with sadness gathered around a table arranged with decorative trimmings and assembled their own wreaths.
The church hall was filled with fun, playfulness, and laughter. Toys, gifts, and food were plentiful. The kids were entertained by making their own reindeer and treats.
The program prides itself for going above and beyond to contribute to these kids’ lives. New Hope is available every day for children to end their school day with stability that is not always present in their homes.
Lindsay Fry-Geier, executive director of New Hope claims the program was formed because of a concern for children left behind as a result of Oklahoma’s highest women’s and third highest men’s incarceration rate in the nation.
Reaching Out to Prisoners
The holidays are not the most glorious time for inmates, either.
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church united with Concord Prison Outreach, a coalition of local faith communities strive to make a difference for inmates not only at Christmas, but when inmates return to their neighborhoods. The organization fundraises and shops all year to make Christmas special for inmates. Some have never received a gift in their life, let alone Christmas.
Volunteers for the programs carefully shop all year to find just the right gifts for inmates that are approved by the Department of Corrections. Most of the items are toiletries that are a few steps up in quality from the generic brands inmates normally use. Items like Irish Spring soap are a luxury for inmates who have only used commissary soap for years.
The most rewarding job for prison outreach volunteers is personally handing out gift bags to inmates on Christmas Day.
A typical gift bag may contain items such as toothpaste, deodorant, stationary, and is topped off with a signed, handmade, Christmas card with a personal message courtesy of the local Sunday school children.
Volunteers brighten up the day for hundreds of inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution as the inmates parade down to the gym one cell block at a time. The gift bag giving process is a well-ordered processional where a lot of hand shaking goes on. The volunteers meticulously hand out each bag and follow-up with a handshake. They make sure each inmate receives a handshake from every volunteer before they leave the building. This is probably the most consistent friendly contact the prisoners have had their whole life.
Responses from the inmates receiving gifts and having their hands shook are as diverse as their personalities. They go from looking away to dancing down the receiving line. One thing all the inmates have in common is they are all very appreciative.
Beverly Duncan of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church comments on how amazed she is to see one prison in one state with so much energy and talent locked away. Duncan recognizes how education could significantly embellish the attributes these prisoners have kept under wraps while they do their time.
As many as 60 thank you letters are received from grateful inmates. A prisoner expressed that he and his cellmate got an impression of the real meaning of Christmas while opening their gift bags back at their cell.
Even though some of the letters are almost illiterate, they all reflect gratitude for being remembered, that they are not forgotten people just because they are in prison.