More than 2.5 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison. For the past 25 years, First Free Church of Rockford and Prison Fellowship have worked together as a bridge between the parent in prison and the child at home. This partnership ensures that the children will receive Christmas presents from their imprisoned father or mother. This is the well-organized Angel Tree Program and Susan Schumacher is the coordinator.
"Each child receives two gifts," she said. "One is an item of clothing and the other is a 'fun' gift. Each tag says 'Love, Dad' or 'Love, Mom' so the child can believe the gift is from their father or mother."
We asked Schumacher why she is so connected to this project.
"I had a personal relationship with a prisoner ten or twelve years ago. I saw firsthand how incarceration affected children. It's a devastating blow," she said. "I continue to have a lot empathy for the children of prisoners."
Occasionally someone challenges her passion for the program.
"I did have one person say to me, 'Oh I get tired of people getting these handouts.' It's hard for me to understand why you wouldn't want to help a child who is hurting and suffering," she said.
Prior to coordinating the Angel Tree Program, Schumacher was a dedicated "present purchaser" for twenty years, an activity she shares with her husband. Her favorite children to buy for are teenaged boys, mostly because she likes the challenge. She says they often ask for hoodies and jeans for the "clothing" item, and books and video games for the "fun" gift. The gifts are also accompanied with an age-appropriate Scripture selection.
When asked if she had someone besides the children that she looked to for inspiration, Schumacher said, "I would have to say Jesus Christ. He was imprisoned before he was crucified by the Roman government."
First Free Church volunteers are delivering presents to children who live in Rockford and Loves Park. The parents of these children live in prisons throughout Illinois including Jacksonville, Ina, Galesburg, Joliet, Menard, East Moline, Danville, Kewanee, Robinson, Vienna, and Sheridan. Learn more about the Angel Tree Program here.