For children of prisoners, angel-sent presents

Spirit of Sharing

December 11, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of occasional holiday-season features highlighting people in the Baltimore area who exemplify the spirit of The Sun's annual Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign.

YOU'RE FROM the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key school of thought on prison incarceration, maybe you don't want to read this one.

If you think inmates already have it too soft and life in the slammer is like a weekend at the Marriott, only with more free weights, you won't want to hear about Tom Cox and his do-gooder pals, who have this silly idea that prison is a searing experience that rips apart too many families in this country.

Cox, you see, is the area coordinator of the Angel Tree Project - an offshoot of the Christian-based Prison Fellowship Ministries - which collects Christmas presents for distribution to inmates' children.

So every year around this time, Cox and his bleeding-heart buddies visit children in Baltimore who have a father or mother off somewhere doing time. (Mostly, you'll be shocked to know, it's the father who's away.)

The Angel Tree volunteers hand the kids a couple of presents and watch their smiles light up the room.

Then they tell the kids something like this:

The angel, you know, is a messenger. And the message we have for you is: Your father loves you. Sure, he's not with you right now. But he's still thinking about you. He still cares.

"Ultimately, the presents are almost immaterial," says Cox, 61, a retired IBM executive who lives in Towson. "What's being delivered is hope."

Since making prison inmates and their families feel better about themselves is not exactly a national priority right now, Cox gets his share of eye-rolling when Angel Tree comes up in conversation.

"I run into: `Why are we doing this?' " he says.

His answer: "It's not the children who broke the law. But they're the ones on the pointy end of the stick when we send these men and women away. ... The point is, these kids didn't ask for their dads to be bank robbers or drug dealers."

And when a kid hasn't seen, or heard from, a parent in prison for many years, Angel Tree, which started 20 years ago in Alabama, has a magical effect.

"Whether it's a 3-year-old or a 16-year-old, when they hear the present's coming from mom or dad, it just stuns them," says Cox.

Nationwide, says Cox, Angel Tree provided presents to some 500,000 children last year - 14,000 in the Baltimore-Washington area - a sad commentary on how many people are behind bars in this country.

This year, Cox's church, Central Presbyterian in Towson, in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, will provide Angel Tree gifts to almost 200 children in 109 Baltimore families.

The logistics behind Angel Tree are daunting, because organizing a Christmas-present program for convicted murderers and gang-bangers is not exactly like running the Secret Santa at your office.

Each summer, inmates who want to participate in Angel Tree fill out forms listing the names of their children and the children's caregiver, along with addresses and phone numbers.

The caregiver is then contacted and asked what the children might like for Christmas. (Angel Tree provides two presents for each child: a clothing item and a toy, or fun item. Each is supposed to cost between $20 and $30)

Then the names of the children, and their requests - electronic games are the most popular toys, blue jeans the most popular clothing - are put on "angel tags" affixed to the Angel Tree in churches throughout the country. (Ninety-five percent of Angel Tree is run at the church level.)

Members of the congregation then take a tag and go out and buy toys and clothing for that child. Often, church members get their kids involved. Some families at Central Presbyterian even deliver the presents personally, driving into some areas of the city they normally see only on the 6 o'clock news.

"It's a great way for kids to feel like they're participating, and to see a slice of life they won't see at Dumbarton Middle or someplace like that," says Cox.

What Cox tries to stress about Angel Tree is that it isn't another "Toys for Tots" program for the needy.

"These are not kids who are going without presents," he says of the children of inmates. Sometimes, in fact, "there are a lot of presents," he adds. "They're just not coming from the parents in prison."

And, Cox feels, connecting inmates with their kids at Christmas is a small step toward dealing with the larger issue of so many inner-city kids growing up without fathers.

"I still think that if it's not the major challenge in this country, it's one of them," he says. " ... I don't know how I'd behave today, if I didn't know my father. The benefit of having a father in your life is that it's someone who loves you."

And someone to be loved back, too.

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