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Angel Tree program provides gifts to prisoners' kids

12/23/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMTV report is also available.

By Kim Riemland*

SHELBY, N.C. (UMNS) - Stanley Petty would love to have the holiday stress so many people complain about, like navigating crowded malls in search of the right gift, or staying up late to bake treats and wrap presents.

But Petty will spend another Christmas in prison, another year locked up for poor choices that he regrets.

"I got twisted up and always have been in drugs," he said. "I've chased an easy life, and it's cost me dearly."

He is doing time at Cleveland Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Shelby, N.C., for a felony drug conviction; he isn't due for release until 2008.

Petty isn't the only one paying the price for his crimes. His 10-year-old son and 14-year- old daughter will spend another Christmas without their dad.

"I've neglected them, basically all of their life," Petty said. "I've been in and out of the penitentiary."

Church members all over the country are reaching out to the children of inmates through a program called Angel Tree Christmas, offered by Prison Fellowship Ministries.

The youth group at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Shelby is participating in the program this year. Members collected the wish lists of children of area inmates. They did all the shopping and wrapping, and will deliver gifts on behalf of the imprisoned parent.

"Myself, personally, I couldn't imagine being away from my parents during Christmas time," said Kelsey Wagner, 15. " I imagine it's hard, especially for little kids."

Since it began in 1982, Angel Tree Christmas has touched an estimated 6 million children's lives through the participation of thousands of churches, according to Prison Fellowship Ministries, an organization founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson. Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, served seven months in prison in the mid-1970s for an obstruction of justice conviction related to the Watergate scandal.

Prison Fellowship estimates that about 2 million U.S. children have at least one parent behind bars. Statistics show children with a parent in prison are more likely to be incarcerated themselves someday.

"If we don't teach them the love of God now, when they are children, we'll be taking care of them while they're troubled adults," said the Rev. Pat Tiffany, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

"Without this Angel Tree, there is nothing I could give them in my present situation," Petty said.

"It's being a father that I can't be right now," said fellow inmate Nathan Crawford, who is also serving time for drug-related crimes. Without the Angel Tree program, his two girls probably wouldn't receive gifts, he said.

"They love it," Crawford said of the program. "They've been asking about it since before Thanksgiving."

"This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he told us to care for the widows and the orphans," Tiffany said. "These are the orphans of our time."

Petty faces several more Christmases away from his daughter and son. He said he's glad for the Angel Tree program, which enables him to show his kids that he loves them.

"I think this is a positive thing that society has allowed me to do in order to help my family, and I'm grateful for it."

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*Riemland is a UMNS correspondent based in Seattle. Nancye Willis at United Methodist Communications contributed to this report.

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