In 1978, Don Bratcher, a chaplain at Davis County jail in Kentucky, wanted to bring incarcerated children and their parents together for the holidays. So, he had an idea: Why not have a Christmas celebration where interested inmates and their kids could spend the holidays together? So he made it happen. Roughly 80 children attended that first party. They received presents and, most of all, an understanding that their parents, who were away, thought of them often. The project has been a mainstay of the jail ever since.
Today, the Jail Ministry Christmas Gift Program is a massive effort, fueled by a team of volunteers, church members, and other individuals that helps provide and distribute toys and bibles to nearly 600 children around the country whose parents are in jail (In the U.S, there are 2.7 million children who have at least one parent in jail) It’s led by Reverend Jerry Carter who has been a main organizer since the program’s inception. Per Carter, the ultimate goal of the program is simple: “We want to make sure that the kids know their parents are still thinking of them.” Here, Reverend Carter, a minister at Apollo Heights Baptist Church, discusses the program and the importance of connecting incarcerated parents with their children.
The Jail Ministry Christmas Program is wonderful. Can you walk us through how it actually works?
Well, we have approximately 750 inmates in our jail program. We get a list of their kids, from zero to 12 years old, boy or girl. We buy gifts for them at $10 apiece. This year, we had 528 kids on the list. We get a $10 gift for each one. We separate them, by age of course, boy and girl. And then we do another separation: out of town recipients and in-town recipients. For the out of town people, we wrap the gifts box them, put an address label on them, and mail them to the kids or to their caretaker. This year, 170 gifts went to kids who live out of town. Then we take the in-town kids, we separate those gifts into different routes — we have about 25 to 30 routes here locally. Then, we ask people to come and choose a route. They take that route out and deliver the gifts, personally, to the kids here in our local area, within Davis County and McClain County.
Is it just your church, Apollo Heights Baptist, that does this work?
No. We have 55 churches in our association. Approximately half of those churches get involved. They buy the gifts, bring them to us, or, bring us cash, and in that case, we go buy the gifts ourselves. Bring those to the association office. Of course, all of them are wrapped in Christmas paper. The kid’s names are on them, of course, before they’re delivered or mailed.
How long does it take do do this every year?
This takes about three and a half weeks. We have a lady in our office, Ms. Leslie Rice, that helps us put this program together. I’m the chairman of what we call the ‘Jail Ministry Christmas Gift Program,’ I help put all this together. And there are usually different churches that will come in on different nights to wrap these gifts for us. They put them in the respective age groups, where they go, boy or girl, and so on.
You’ve been in the program since the beginning. How has it evolved?
It’s been an ongoing process. Originally, we had about 70 kids. It’s grown from 70, to over 600, at times, in the past 40 years.
Wow. That’s quite a growth.
It’s an undertaking, believe me.
Why is this program so important to you?
Mainly, it’s good to have contact with the kids in a very positive way. And to let them know that their moms and dads have not forgotten them. And, to give them some joy, when otherwise, they may not have it because maybe their mom or dad or both were in jail.
I guess the most important thing, would be that people who made mistakes in their life, that are incarcerated, still deserve attention. Because those lives still have possibilities. Through this ministry, we’re able to encourage them to do that, and to not give up on life. That’s probably the most important thing.
What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen in the past 40 years of running this program?
The biggest change I’ve noticed is the attitude of the people at the jail. In the beginning, they were kind of reluctant. But as the program has grown, and gotten larger, they fell behind this thing. It’s become a positive thing for them. There’s a new jail chaplain, Herzogg, and he works with us really closely. He helps us with the applications that we send up there. He hands them out to all of the individuals and he helps them fill them out and he collects them back and then we go pick them up. It’s a positive influence on these parents. It helps them realize that people care about them.
I’m sure that it has a similar impact on the kids that you help.
In many cases, we really don’t ever know what the full impact is, other than we receive letters from the kids or their foster parents or whoever is taking care of them. They’ll thank us for the gifts, sharing joy that they had when the gifts came. Those kinds of things that we hear of through letters and phone calls, from these folks, that are taking care of the kids. That’s another positive thing that comes out of this.
And the gifts are labeled as from dad or mom. We want to make sure that the kids know their parents are still thinking of them.
Has anything surprised you in all of the years that you worked on this program?
The number of people who have gotten involved financially, delivering the gifts, helping wrap the gifts. We had a number of people that helped us with this. A lot of times, when you do something like this, you wind up with about six, or eight, or maybe ten people doing it. But not in this case. We have a number of people that helped us.
To you, personally, what’s the most rewarding part of this work?
The biggest thing for me is being able to help other people, who otherwise can’t help themselves. We’ve had people from Mexico, who call us from Los Angeles, from New York City, from Florida. I don’t think there’s a state we haven’t mailed a gift to.