In 2002, Sonnie Day, a professional gospel singer in Detroit, received a call from a local church asking her to pick up a present for her daughter. When she went to collect the gift, she discovered it was from the girl's father, who was in prison.
Day said it was wonderful seeing her daughter's eyes light up as she unwrapped the package under the tree.
"It kind of just blew me out of the water," said Day. "She was excited, because I didn't tell her the gift was from him until she got up on Christmas morning and read the label on it, and it said 'From Dad.'"
Day's family is one of thousands who have benefited from Angel Tree, a Christian ministry that purchases presents for children on behalf of incarcerated parents.
The holidays can be a heartbreaking time for a child with a parent in prison. In Detroit, the problem is tragically commonplace. The Michigan prison population in 2010 was 44,113. Of those, 95.7 percent were men, and 55.2 percent were nonwhite. Michigan does not separate prisoner data by origin or previous residence, but according to a 2004 survey, almost 30 percent of prisoners released to parole in Michigan that year returned to the city of Detroit.
In 2009, Day began working with another ministry, Prison Fellowship, not realizing at first that it was a wing of the Angel Tree network. She was singing at a Prison Fellowship volunteer function when she spotted a brochure with Angel Tree's logo.
"Wow," said Day, recalling her reaction at the time. "The logo seems familiar to me. Where did I see it from? Wow, these are the people that have been sending my daughter gifts for all these years from her dad, who's incarcerated."
Day's daughter received gifts through Angel Tree for seven years, which Day credits with helping maintain the parental connection. The father, now out of prison, has relocated to Michigan, and Day said father and daughter are very close.
Angel Tree's history is just as eye-catching as the colorful wrapping paper on its gifts. The notorious safecracker and bank robber Mary Kay Beard, once listed as one of America's most wanted criminals, founded the ministry in 1982, after spending six years in Alabama prison. She had the idea after seeing incarcerated mothers give gifts of soap and toothbrushes to their children.
Denise Harris, who directs Angel Tree/Prison Fellowship field operations in southeast Michigan, said Beard "found it really didn't matter what the gift was. It was the fact that the gift was from the incarcerated parent that made it so special to the child."
"The kids would come in the jail to visit their mom, and when they would open their gifts, they would just wrap their arms around mom and say, 'Thank you, Mommy. I love you, I love you,'" said Harris.
Almost 30 years later, Angel Tree now serves the families of inmates in all 50 states and 45 countries. Harris estimates about 34,000 families in the Detroit area have participated in the program, with the assistance of 38 churches. She said this year's response has exceeded all expectations.
"I'd have to say this is probably the first time in many years we've been able to cover all the Detroit [and Wayne County] kids through our Angel Tree Christmas program," she said. "That's kind of historic for us."
Richard Braceful, an inspector clerk for a local warehouse, participated in Angel Tree while serving four years in a federal prison. After coming home, he joined Prison Fellowship's program.
"It just created an attitude of responsibility, like the Prison Fellowship had stretched a hand out to me and I kind of owed them not to go in the same direction that I was on," he explained.
He agreed with Day and Harris that Angel Tree's gifts help maintain ties between imprisoned parents and their children.
"When you're somebody that's incarcerated, the one thing you think about a lot is your children," Braceful said. "What it did was it kept them keeping in contact, answering letters, making phone calls. It just kept the relationship from breaking."
Braceful added that Angel Tree's system of hand-delivering gifts has a special impact.
"It's a program that needs to continue because it has an unmeasured effect on families that nobody could imagine, that something so small could have such a great effect," he said.
Angel Tree/Prison Fellowship is currently looking for toy donations to give as gifts at a Dec. 17 event at the Bethany Baptist Church in Detroit. Some 750 children are expected to attend. The deadline for Christmas donations is Dec. 14. For more information, contact Denise Harris by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 248-886-0881.