Volunteer helps thousands of children with parents in prison receive Christmas gifts

Volunteer helps thousands of children with parents in prison receive Christmas gifts

Dave Hrbacek

A small article in a Christian magazine caught Bob O’Connell’s eye in 1982. It described a national program that provides Christmas presents to children who have a parent in prison.

O’Connell was looking for a way to apply the Gospel message by serving the poor and suffering.

“I had been in the charismatic movement… for seven, eight years,” said O’Connell, 78, a member of St. Peter in Mendota. “I was restless. I was itchy for doing something. I was just kind of bored. ‘Okay, I’ve got a full-time job, but when it comes to doing some ministry, something for the Lord, I’m not doing anything.’ So, I thought, ‘What can I do?’”

Forty years later, that question is laid to rest, replaced more significantly by a new one: What has he been doing?

Plenty. The two-paragraph article he read in New Wine magazine in 1982 described the launch of a ministry called Project Angel Tree. It was started by a woman who had been incarcerated herself: Mary Kay Beard of Alabama. She had recently been hired by an organization called Prison Fellowship and was asked to come up with a Christmas project.

She decided to erect Christmas trees at two local shopping malls and attach paper angels with the names of boys and girls who had a parent in prison. On the angels were gift ideas, and Beard coordinated a team of people to deliver gifts to these children of inmates.

O’Connell started doing it in the Twin Cities that same year, and he has done it every year since. His 40 years of coordinating it from his Burnsville home have included expanding beyond the Twin Cities to include northern Minnesota, plus the neighboring states of Wisconsin, Iowa and North and South Dakota. This year, Missouri was added to the list.

O’Connell serves the program through his membership in a local, ecumenical Christian lay community called the People of Praise, which provides 130 to 150 volunteers annually to purchase and deliver gifts to 75 children a year. Prison chaplains provide names of inmates wanting to participate in the program. Angel Tree staff members pass along these names to people like O’Connell. Most of the organizations that buy and deliver gifts are churches. The program exists in all 50 states and serves about 300,000 children a year, said an Angel Tree staff member. Overall, Angel Tree volunteers have delivered more than 11 million Christmas gifts, according to its website.

Determination would be an understatement to describe four decades of commitment to Angel Tree by O’Connell. He fought through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to find a way to deliver gifts (gift cards that year). Plus, he worked through the illness and death of two wives: Diane in 2013 and Deb in 2020. Both worked side by side with him when they were healthy, and he continued even as their health declined.

“Bob’s passion for what he does, and the detail that he keeps track of — it’s remarkable,” said long-time volunteer and friend Brad Bye, who has been inspired by O’Connell’s example to drive to places that sometimes are beyond the GPS grid. “If there’s a kid (whose parent signed up for the program), there’s no hill big enough that Bob wouldn’t figure out a way to get it to him.”

O’Connell sees to it that no child is left behind when it comes to receiving gifts. Even though many of the families are unstable — often changing addresses several times over the course of just a few months — O’Connell doggedly tracks them down if the driver on the initial delivery attempt fails to reach them because they have moved. One time, he kept at it for almost two months, finally knocking on the door of a very surprised mother on Feb. 14. Instead of saying, “Merry Christmas,” O’Connell instead jokingly proclaimed, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

O’Connell expresses pride over his 100% delivery rate over 40 years, which will total just over 2,900 children after this year’s delivery Dec. 10 to about 75 children. But, even as the 3,000 mark approaches, O’Connell has decided to step aside after this year. Some health issues have surfaced, plus he is a newlywed again. His new wife, Mary, already has stepped in to help, starting just after their May nuptials. But, after spending every fall from October through mid-December running the program, O’Connell wants to pass the torch to a new leader.

“I can feel this year that I’m starting to slip a little,” he said. “You can see that age is catching up with you. You’re not maybe remembering certain things and the details. So, better to hand it off.”

He said he sometimes struggles remembering street addresses, but his memory is plenty sharp when it comes to recalling beautiful delivery moments. Like the time years ago when he worked with a family that included a 12-year-old whose father was in prison. The inmates are allowed to put a brief, personal message on each angel for the children. O’Connell’s callers dutifully record and then write the messages on the angels for the delivery drivers to read to the children. In this case, the father had told his son that he was to be “the man of the house” while his father served time in prison.

Thinking that was a lot to put on a pre-teen boy’s shoulders, O’Connell worked with a friend to get the boy a bike. It was a practical gift, as the boy lived in a rough neighborhood where gangs would often steal things like groceries from people walking down the street. A bike would give the boy a much faster mode of transportation and help him elude the gangs.

O’Connell made this delivery himself, handing off all the presents to the boy’s mother except the bike. He informed the mother that he had one more gift to deliver, but he would need some help bringing it from the car to the house. So, she sent her 12-year-old son outside to help.

“We get the bike out, and I said, ‘It’s all yours,’” O’Connell recalled. “And the kid was just — ‘Wow.’”

It was a “wow” moment for O’Connell, too, who connected that encounter with what Jesus talks about in the Gospels.

“I started to see, when the Lord talks in Scripture about reaching out and helping the prisoners, this is a way we can do that,” he said.

In more recent years, O’Connell has seen a shift in the families he serves, which revolves around the gender of the inmates.

“There’s been such an uptick in women going into prison,” O’Connell said. “I think a lot of that is drug related. They’re part of drug (dealing) rings.”

With the end in sight, O’Connell decided to get a special memento. Usually, he finds and orders an angel for each of his four callers. Sometimes, he’ll keep one for himself. This year, he found a green angel that connects with his heritage.

“I’m Irish,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna get an Irish angel this time.”

But the “angels” he most cherishes are the 100-plus volunteers who say yes every year to helping bring a little joy to children who will feel the emptiness of having a parent in prison.

“That part is very gratifying to me, to see that many people that willing to do the part that they play,” he said. “It can never be a one-man deal, that’s for sure.”

Volunteer helps thousands of children with parents in prison receive Christmas gifts

%d bloggers like this: