When she passed by an “angel” tree in the lobby of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tennessee, almost 20 years ago, Denise Vermeulen was intrigued by the paper angels hanging on the Christmas tree and asked the volunteer for more information. She was surprised to learn that each angel represented a local child who had one or both of their parents incarcerated, and the church was gathering Christmas gifts for them.
“When she explained it to me, I just started bawling,” said Vermeulen. “This particular angel tree ministry was something that really resonated with me.”
Vermeulen’s father was a drug addict and dealer and was in and out of prison most of her childhood, as well as her adult life.
Christmas was often a hard time for Vermeulen and her family when she was a child. Her parents were divorced, leaving her mother to raise three young children on her own. Her grandparents provided as much as they could for their grandchildren, and she has many happy Christmas memories with them. However, her contact with her father was intermittent, often via a letter from jail, and Vermeulen only remembers only receiving one gift from him after her parents’ divorce.
“He was actually so big time that he was on the TBI list,” she said. “The last time they got him, not only did he have a large amount of cocaine and marijuana in the car, but he also shot at a police officer, and they got him on that, too,” Vermeulen said. His last arrest landed her father in jail for decades.
That day in the church lobby, Vermeulen was so moved that she began to assist with the program at that time and later started serving as the church coordinator.
Remembering families affected by a loved one’s incarceration
Prison Fellowship Angel Tree is a program that serves incarcerated parents by giving them a pathway to restore and strengthen relationships with their children and families. Through this ministry, children receive gifts, the gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their mom or dad behind bars.
More than 5 million children, or 1 in 14, in the U.S. have had a parent in state or federal prison at some point in their lives, according to the Casey Foundation. And those statistics don’t consider adults, like Vermeulen, who have this experience in their past.
Vermeulen encourages everyone to remember: “It’s not the children’s fault.”
“As a child, you should not have to deal with the consequences of your parents’ decisions. But these children deal with those consequences every single day. This is why it is so dear to my heart. I want them to know I understand.”
“To me, for the children to get a gift and know that their parent is thinking about them, regardless of the mistakes that they’ve made, that really spoke to me, because I never felt that way.”
“When you’re a kid, you don’t understand mom or dad is in prison,” Vermeulen said. “All you know is that it’s Christmas, and they should give you a present no matter what,” she laughs.
Vermeulen and her church are able to both gather the gifts and host a Christmas party to distribute them to the children of incarcerated parents in their community. Participating families come to the church to pick up their gifts and stay for a pizza party with games and arts and crafts.
“It’s about the children, letting them know they are loved and sharing the Gospel with them,” Vermeulen said.
For more information about the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program, visit prisonfellowship.org.
*A version of this story previously appeared in Wilson Living magazine.