By Chris Meehan and Sean Connolly
Around 100 Servant Branch members continued a long tradition this December by buying Christmas presents and delivering them to children of prisoners. Bob O’Connell organized this year’s effort, just as he has for the last 30 years. "Bob and so many others have worked tirelessly for years in this wonderful labor of love,” notes principal branch coordinator Joel Kibler.
The gift-giving is part of Project Angel Tree, a national ministry started by Mary Kay Beard, a former convict who became a Christian. Angel Tree began in Alabama in 1982 and quickly spread. Bob read about it in New Wine magazine soon after and suggested that Servants of the Lord community get involved. The tradition continued after Servants of the Lord became part of the People of Praise. Bob estimates that community members have given presents to about 2,000 children over the years.
This year, Servant Branch members made phone calls, bought presents, wrapped them and delivered them to families in the Twin Cities and their suburbs, as well as in towns spread across the region from Hudson, Duluth and Superior to as far as Fargo, North Dakota. They bought and delivered Christmas toys and clothing to 67 children of prisoners.
“But the numbers aren’t the goal,” Bob is quick to say. “The goal is bringing the Lord to the children, their guardians and to incarcerated parents.”
Some of the community volunteers are new to Angel Tree--like the young Girls of Praise who baked Christmas cookies to accompany the presents--but many of the volunteers have served with Bob from the beginning. “Bob’s passion for Angel Tree is contagious,” admits Brad Bye, who has often helped deliver gifts. This year he drove 150 miles north to Duluth, Minnesota, to deliver packages, then he delivered 10 more in the Iron Range area of the state 50 miles farther north. Project Angel Tree sometimes makes long-distance delivery requests of Bob if there aren’t enough local churches to support the ministry.
Delivering the presents has led to many memorable moments. Dave and Julie Hrbacek bring their children along to share the experience. John Zimmel, who delivers presents with his wife Jo, remembers one little boy in the second or third grade who was home alone when they arrived--and very excited to receive his gifts.
Jim Cahill, a long-time helper, uses his contacts in the grocery industry to obtain generous discounts on turkeys that go along with the gifts. He remembers a delivery intended for three brothers, two of whom were playing videogames with a friend when Jim arrived. When Jim asked, "Who wants a bible?," the friend said he wanted it. Jim offered to pray with him, and the boy accepted. When Jim prayed, tears came to the boy's eyes. “Two minutes can change a life,” says Jim.
“Because we’ve been doing this so long, I sometimes recognize the name of an 18-year-old child who was two years old when we first gave her an Angel Tree Christmas Tree present,” Bob says. He adds that he is always moved by the written messages from incarcerated parents that go along with the gifts.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Ruth Jorgenson, who helps call the guardians of the children ahead of time to get some understanding of their needs and wants. “We’re fortunate that we can help.”