Locked away in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, NL, a inmate tells his prison chaplain, the Rev. John Paul Westin: “I’d like to be able have my little guy sitting on my lap and be hugging him at Christmas. Angel Tree is as close as I get to doing that.”
Angel Tree is an international and interdenominational program of Prison Fellowship International, originally based in Washington, D.C., that makes sure the children of prison inmates get personalized gifts from their incarcerated parents. Prison Fellowship Canada (prisonfellowship.ca) is based in Toronto.
In the summer 2007, after attending the International Convocation of Prison fellowship in Toronto, Westin and his wife, Carolyn, brought back the Angel Tree idea to the pastoral care committee at the penitentiary. With everyone in favour, the program started up at Christmas 2007. Carolyn is now Angel Tree director for Newfoundland.
In addition to his prison chaplaincy, Westin is rector of St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in St. John’s. Established in 1836 as an old garrison church, St. Thomas’s is The Rock’s oldest continuously used Anglican church building.
As Westin explains, prison chaplains all across Canada offer the Angel Tree Christmas program to inmates. “Those with children under age 18 are entitled to fill out forms suggesting gifts up to a value of $30 each. They write personal messages that are transferred to cards to their children.” The gift requests go out to local churches and individual volunteers in the inmates’ hometowns. Gifts are purchased and hand-delivered to the kids at their caregivers’ in the names of the incarcerated parents. “It’s a lovely program,” Westin says.
At his facility this year, Angel Tree is helping 41 male inmates with a total of 67 children. “The Salvation Army takes care of the women’s facility in Clarenville,” says Westin. Across Canada, the program serves about 20,000 children.
“The children of prisoners are at very high risk of becoming incarcerated themselves some day,” says Westin, “and this is one way of trying to divert them through positive experiences before they get into trouble.”