Holiday ministry gives gifts to children of imprisoned parents

Published 5:30 pm Friday, November 23, 2007

Patty Bryars got involved in a very special holiday ministry five years ago that involves prisons and children, and it has enriched her life.

The program she coordinates as a volunteer has been around for 25 years under the copyright name “Angel Tree.”

This program is not about helping poor children at Christmas, though many of the children it helps are poor. It’s about connecting parents in prison with their children at home via a Christmas gift.

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“When a parent is in prison, the kids do hard time,” Bryars said. “That’s what I tell everybody.”

Bryars receives the names of children living in Jackson County who have a parent in prison, a parent who wants his or her child to receive a gift. A very important key to the program is the parent asks for the service through the prison chaplain. That way it’s truly a gift from the parent to the child.

It’s a nationwide program, so there could be an inmate in Tennessee who has a child in Jackson County. If he or she requests a present, the child’s name and contact information will be forwarded to Bryars, who is a working mother and grandmother but takes time out for this project. It has been a blessing for her, especially the short time she spends with the children.

“You hand the gift to the child and offer them a chance to speak. Sometimes they talk about Mom or Dad,” she said. “Sometimes they’re angry. But they know the gift is from their parent. Were just the intermediaries. We’re just the listening ear.”

Bryars has delivered presents that were the only gifts under the tree. She has found cases in which the family was just as religious as she is or the children are well cared for. But there have been cases in which, after she delivered the presents, her church went back and did work on the house, because the family was so strapped.

This year she has 166 and she could use some help. She has tried through the years to get churches involved in “adopting” these children, but has been successful with only three or four. Her church, Wesley Methodist in Ocean Springs, has been a great supporter.

It’s an involved process. Bryars receives the children’s names from Prison Fellowship Ministries, usually in the early fall. Then she contacts each of the caregivers to see if it’s all right for the children to receive a gift from their parent and gets gift suggestions. The next step is to make up the angels, distribute the angel cards to willing gift donors, get the gifts back, wrap them and put them in the hands of the children as close to Christmas as possible.

It sounds simple until it involves numbers like 166 children. And this year the names came in late. Each child receives two presents, so that doubles the project.

With years of having it fall into place, Bryars said, “I keep a light hand on it until close to Christmas. I say, ’Lord get these angels back to me.’

“The first year I did it, I was scared to death,” she said. “I couldn’t figure how all those gifts were going to be paid for and all of it logistically.”

When Christmas got close, she took the last of the angels to work with her and her co-workers —— Navy civilians at the Supervisor of Shipbuilding program in Pascagoula —— pitched in and adopted.

Her sorority also helps. And for the people who help, she is grateful.

“This is an unconditional act of kindness,” Bryars said. “Everyone who has helped has come back and thanked me.”