SIKESTON -- Whether good or bad, everyone has childhood memories of their Christmases. For the fifth year in a row, the Sikeston Angel Tree is trying to ensure the memories of over 200 Sikeston children will be good ones to last a lifetime.
Nearly 285 children in Sikeston and 2 million in the United States have one or both parents in prison. Angel Tree is a nationwide year-round program that provides Christmas care, camping programs and mentoring to the children of prisoners.
During the Christmas season, volunteers from churches and organizations present prisoners' children with Christmas gifts.
"It's not about benefiting the prisoners. It's about the benefit of the child. It's not the child's fault their parent is in prison," said Ted Martin, first-year coordinator for Sikeston's Angel Tree.
A child with an incarcerated parent is five times more likely to end up in prison than a child who grows up with parents who are not incarcerated, according to the April 2002 issue of U.S. News and World Report.
"It's a way of stopping the turnover rate of family crime. There are several fathers and sons who are in prison," Martin noted. "This is a way of reaching the children and intervening."
Courtney Sorrell, 16, has volunteered for Angel Tree since she was 11 years old. She found out about Angel Tree from her mother. Through her Girl Scout Troop 341 and Junior Auxiliary of American Legion, Sorrell and some of her friends have raised money to purchase gifts for children.
"Every child needs to have a good Christmas," Sorrell said. "And some kids don't get anything at all. It's just our way of helping them."
Sorrell said she and her friends feel better when they help each year, knowing kids who need the presents are getting them.
Angel Tree was founded by ex-inmate Mary Kay Beard through Prison Fellowship Ministry, a prison outreach and criminal justice reform organization formed in 1976 by former Richard M. Nixon aide Chuck Colson.
Prisoners sign up their children to receive Christmas gifts given by Angel Tree volunteers on their behalf. Angel Tree volunteers then contact caregivers of the children to solicit their gift wishes. Gift wishes are written on paper angels and hung on Christmas trees at participating places.
Volunteers purchase and wrap the requested items and either deliver them or bring them to the Christmas party. Sikeston Angel Tree Christmas Party is scheduled for Dec. 15.
Mission Missouri and Morley Baptist Church started Angel Tree, and this year they have help to organize the program.
"We're delighted because this is the first year we have a coordinator," said Janie Pfefferkorn, Mission Missouri executive director. "We're hoping we get a lot more people involved."
Pfefferkorn's hopes a coordinator will help organize things. "We get a lot of wrong phone numbers and addresses -- which just shows you how many parents lose contact with their children in prison," she said. "We try to locate the kids ahead of time to ensure they'll get a gift."
Nearly 14,000 Missouri parents are in prisons, but that doesn't necessarily mean the parents are in Missouri, Martin added. More than 60 percent of the parents in state prisons reported being held more than 100 miles from their last place of residence, according to Angel Tree volunteers.
Since the program began in 1982, more than 4.5 million children of prisoners have received nearly 8.5 million Angel Tree gifts nationwide. In 2001, Angel Tree provided Christmas gifts to nearly 600,000 gifts.
Each year Sorrell and her friends raise enough money for 20 Angel Tree gifts. They donate a total of 75 Christmas gifts for other children's Christmas gift organizations.
"One year, one kid's present was lost and one of my friends had a $20 bill in her pocket. She ended up giving it to the kid as his present," Sorrell recalled.
Each child receives one toy gift and one clothing gift. Between $15 and $20 is spent per gift. Children also receive literature about the story of Christmas with their presents.
At first the kids aren't quite sure what to expect, Pfefferkorn said about the event. Last year they had a lot of fun making crafts, singing and eating food, she said.
"They (Angel Tree children) have such a difficult life," Pfefferkorn said. "What we do is more than a one-time party. We follow-up with them and continue throughout the year, which is really what Angel Tree is all about."
Any church group, business or organization interested in volunteering should contact Martin at (573) 471-0121 or (573) 683-3276.