Program shares God’s love, gifts with children of prison inmates

Herald/Steven Doll - Debbie Emerson, of Belton, sorts through donated gifts as they are organized Friday afternoon at First Baptist Church of Belton. The gifts will go to children of jail and prison inmates, as part of Project Angel Tree. Churches throughout the area are taking part in the annual project. -

By Justin Cox

Killeen Daily Herald

BELTON — Amid the ding-dong of bells and the sweet sounds of cheer, among the clamoring ring of cash registers, the rushing to aisles and the crackle of fresh wrapping paper, there is Christmas.

And Christmas, more than the festive fodder and mainstream mayhem, is about giving; it’s about God.

It’s easy to get caught up with the rest.

But don’t tell that to Jeannete Kelley and her merry band of volunteers and researchers; this group reaches out to some who are probably not on many shoppers’ Christmas lists, but perhaps should be.

The overpopulated Bell County Jail is home to more than 800 inmates – it’s a holding area for all felony offenders, from those accused of evading arrest and minor drug possession all the way up to hardened killers.

But felons or no, these inmates have families, and they have children.

“I have a passion for children, and they are the innocent victims of their parents’ crimes,” said Kelley, who has been helping to deliver gifts to inmates’ children for more than 11 years.

Whether it’s known as Project Angel Tree or Prison Fellowship, the goal is the same — to reach children who are left behind and to bring them the joy of Christmas through messages from their parents, gifts, and gospels in the name of Jesus.

Many of these children are forgotten, left behind in a broken family setting, often without a parent, raised by an aunt or a grandparent, and not given a choice.

Kelley and those volunteers and organizations who aid the effort believe that their mission is to aid the development of these children, even if it is in a small way, by showing them the word of God, delivered at the time of year when giving is all around.

It’s a real grassroots effort, Kelley said of the east Bell County branch, which works through the J.A.I.L Ministries group.

With the help of about 15 core volunteers, 18 churches, eight businesses (not including those that give money to the group) and two service/fraternal organizations, they track down the addresses and phone numbers of the children of Bell County inmates as well as those children who live in Bell County whose parents are incarcerated in other parts of the United States.

As of the first week of December, Kelley said the group is on pace to eclipse last year’s total of 1,301 children fairly easily, spread out among about 25 states, including one to Hawaii and another to Alaska and two foreign countries.

And that’s just the beginning of their efforts, as the group pulls in children from other organizations, such as the 58 they will help this year who are part of the Head Start program, children ages 3 months to 5 years, as well as the 187 children who are part of the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program, and even the 55 juveniles locked up and incarcerated in Bell County’s juvenile detention facility.

They make no distinction. But that’s part of the charm.

On many a weekday morning at Kelley’s home out on the edge of Belton and Temple, volunteers gather, as they have done since Kelley finished the home in 2001. Dedicated to volunteerism, she said, several such volunteers can be found between October and mid-December, making phone calls, tracking down families, passing messages of heartfelt parents who cannot be with their children this year.

“We’re doing something that helps God reach them, and they may not be reached in any other way,” said Belton resident Jean Whitis, in her sixth year as a regular volunteer. “It’s because of the fellowship with other Christians. We work together, and the joy of knowing you’re doing something for innocent victims of their parents’ crimes. We may actually be touching some lives in the name of Christ, and in a time of year when that is most important.”

Glenda Cosper and Debbie Emerson, two more of Kelley’s reliable core, said they gets a tremendous amount of fulfillment in acting as a conduit between the parent and the child, who may have little understanding about where their parent actually is.

“These children are at risk in some form or another,” Cosper said. “Some of these messages just break your heart. This is a good way of getting a Christian word at that special time of year when Christ is around us.”

“The hope is that we can reach every child, and we’re here to serve,” Kelley said.

Contact Justin Cox at or call (254) 501-7568.

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