Angel Tree is bringing joy and connection to families of inmates this Christmas
Angel Tree is bringing joy and connection to families of inmates this Christmas Steve Debenport

Defying distance

For thousands of children, this Christmas will be spent without their father, mother, or both.

And for many, this absence won't be understood, but will be keenly felt.

As of June this year, there were more than 40,000 people full-time in correctional centres. Almost 10,000 of these are in Queensland. (Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Many of these inmates are fathers, mothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, with little to no contact with the children in their lives. Some of the children know where the absent family member is and some don't, but the impact is the same - they will be absent on Christmas Day.

But what if these children could know that while their parent is absent, they have not been forgotten? This is where Prison Fellowship Australia comes in with their program Angel Tree.

Each year, thousands of Christmas gifts are purchased and distributed to children of prisoners through the program, which is coordinated at a state level by Glenise Dagwell. Last year alone, over 2200 gifts were distributed to the children of inmates in Queensland - 500 more than the year before.

"Lists of the gift requests are given to regional co-ordinators, who allocate to churches and corporations who have volunteered to be involved," Glenise said.

Not all areas in Queensland are fortunate enough to have their own regional co-ordinator, so Glenise often steps into the role herself.

The gift lists are very confidential and only include the basics deemed necessary to purchase a present - the child's gender, age range, and interest. It's even more strict if the child is under protective services.

"If the child is under the protection of Child Safety, permission to give a gift is requested first and then, if granted, the gift goes straight to their Case Worker," Glenise explained.

Once the gifts are purchased and wrapped, a trusted person delivers them to the home of the child's carer.

Last year, a mix-up at one of the correctional facilities meant the gift request applications were received late. A prison chaplain drove over an hour to ensure all the gifts were delivered before Christmas Day.

"When he arrived at one house, the woman who answered the door started crying because her son was in prison," Glenise said.

"The prison chaplain realised he actually knew the son, and he was able to tell the woman that he would see him next week and tell him the gifts were received.

"It's things like this that helps the family stay together; it means the family will be reunited one day and we've helped, which makes it all worth it."

It was a similar idea that was behind the creation of Angel Tree and its parent organisation Prison Fellowship.

Former chief counsel to President Richard Nixon, Chuck Colson served time for Watergate, and he spoke to the other prisoners while he was an inmate.

"He realised there was nothing to help families, both for the family member in prison and those outside," Glenise explained.

"When he got out, he did something about it, and Prison Fellowship was born.

"Then one year a female prisoner got a gift and she didn't understand who gave it, but through it she realised the kids of inmates were 'invisible' and started Angel Tree."

It's a story that gets played out across the country again and again. A family member goes to jail, the remaining family are ostracised, and the children don't understand why no-one will play with them and why mum or dad are suddenly gone.

"These little ones are innocent, but there is such an impact on their lives because mum or dad aren't around at the moment," Glenise said.

"The gift, while it is supplied and delivered by an organisation, actually includes a note or card from the parent in jail," Glenise said.

"Through it all, the prisoner can realise there's more to life than what's going on inside the jail - they have kids waiting for them to come home.

"The parent thinks twice about re-offending."

The beauty of getting organisations to help with Angel Tree is that the care has the possibility to go far beyond a gift at Christmas.

"We want to help and make Christmas a happy time, but also give them extended support," Glenise says.

"There are so many grandparents whose children are in jail, so they end up looking after their grandchildren.

"Often churches who meet these people through Angel Tree, help them throughout the year with the children.

"There's one church where their youth get along beside the kids and help them."

Each year Angel Tree seems to get bigger, with schools and businesses chipping in alongside the churches and corporations.

"Some schools or kindys have their kids getting involved by getting them to bring in gifts for donation," Glenise says.

Last year Glenise turned up to an office and was astounded by the amount of gifts in the foyer.

"Whenever the staff donated, the management promised to match it, so they had a ball because I told them to buy whatever gifts they wanted as I could find the kids to match.

"I got to the foyer and there were presents everywhere."

Glenise has also met groups who make Christmas cards, which then get passed on to another group who hand-write the messages for the children and wrap the gifts.

"Everyone gets together and does it. Sometimes there is an affluent church with no children near them, and a poor church with heaps of kids nearby, so they work together to buy and deliver the gifts."

This year, government changes in the correctional system has meant a lot of inmates were moved to other correctional facilities - which is the perfect opportunity for Toowoomba to get more involved.

"Because of this change, there are a lot more children near Toowoomba and we're going to need more organisations to donate," Glenise explains.

"Everyone is happy at Christmas, particularly in the lead-up - it's a happy time, and you give to those close to your heart. But these kids don't get anything."

When Style magazine last spoke to Glenise in November, there were 11 organisations that had volunteered for Angel Tree in the Garden City, but the need is for many more.

"People can just drop gifts off at designated pick-up points or to chaplains, or just call Prison Fellowship and we'll arrange something or tell you where to go to drop them."

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