Angel Tree x KidsMates
By Joshua Martoma, Age 17
Happy holidays to all our followers! It's almost the end of 2022, and we celebrate children and families everywhere who are close to someone incarcerated. Today, KidsMates speaks with David Mariscal from Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program to discuss the vital space incarcerated parents occupy in the hearts and minds of their children. Angel Tree is known for its unique gift-giving program that connects incarcerated individuals with their children around the holidays, but there’s so much more to Angel Tree, as we’ll learn about today. Angel Tree hosts summer and sports camps, Prison Visiting Days, and many other activities. The primary goal of Angel Tree is to foster presence (no pun intended) between incarcerated parents and their children and to support families of incarcerated people year-round.
From experiencing parental incarceration firsthand to working with kids for over 20 years, David Mariscal has seen all sides of the equation. He firmly believes that developing strong connections with an incarcerated parent is the key to breaking the devastation cycle that harms many families. On top of that, David wants to destigmatize incarceration and remind families that they are not alone.
Throughout our interview, I will ask David both about his work with Angel Tree and his wisdom on coping with parental incarceration. He has so much to share, and I can’t wait to get started. Without further delay, let’s welcome David Mariscal from Angel Tree!
Joshua: Hi, David. How are you? It's great to have you as a guest of KidsMates!
David: Good morning, and good to meet you, Josh! Thanks for having me. I'm excited to share some of our programs at Angel Tree.
Joshua: Awesome. So let's jump right into it. For my first question, could you tell us a bit about your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and also as it relates to your work with Angel Tree?
David: My story and connection to incarceration are a little bit complicated. At an early age, I grew up in East LA, and we had a large contingent of folks and kids, especially young men, who were incarcerated. It really shaped the community, and I saw the impact that it had on families. Even my biological father spent time in the criminal justice system. I saw the disconnection that it caused within the community and within families. I also saw some of the ill effects it caused for the guys and the gals that went in and were basically institutionalized. They became disconnected from the community because of a lot of traumas and a lot of the situations [that happened] on the inside.
When I was a teenager, I had to make a decision – what I was going to do with my life – because I had grown up basically on the street. My mom had to work a lot to make ends meet, and that left a lot of time for me to just be out and about. I'm not gonna lie. I had my time as a young man where I was on the streets, and that's what I was about, and that's what I wanted to do. But then I had that moment where I had to confront [myself] and make decisions because I saw the end result.
David: I saw what it did to people I loved and was close to. I had to confront it. As a young man, I knew this would be difficult, but I sought counsel from a local church in the community where I had a relationship but wasn't really part of. I knew they were people that I could talk to. I found my place there where I felt connected, and I learned and grew. I basically went on faith. Even though I didn't understand it, I knew it was a better alternative than what I was doing. I didn't want that to be my end result. I didn't know what the future looked like, but I knew I didn't want that.
Joshua: Wow, that's a pretty inspiring story. How did that lead you to Angel Tree?
David: As it relates to Angel Tree? Yes, I worked from the time I was skinny and had lots of hair (believe it or not, there was a time for that). I have worked with kids for probably a little over 20 years now throughout California, originally in Southern California and specifically in East LA. It was just something where I just loved working with them, seeing the need, and just giving them a place to just be real. As a young man, I had to learn that you don't have all the answers. There's no way, as a young man, that you come in and see somebody struggling to raise their family and know what to say. But there's a huge value and a huge importance to just being present and just letting people know you're not alone. I may not know what to do. I can't solve your problems. But I'm here. You're not alone. You have value; you have worth; you are loved. I'm here with you.
Joshua: That's definitely super inspiring and leads to my next question. What is the most important thing Angel Tree has done in the last year to help families or children facing incarceration?
David: One of the biggest things we've been engaged with for a little more than a year now is what we call "Parent Day Events" inside the prisons. It's about connecting with the folks inside to let them know their children need them. Children need parents present even if they can't be there physically. Parents can still connect with children through phone calls, correspondence, or even old-school snail mail. With modern technology, you even have video calls and emails available. And like I said before, it's about presence. It's not a secret to these kids where their parents are. Parents can't just not exist and need to be there. We tell parents you have a huge influence, and you can influence your children for good because you've lived the life... This was the end result of years or a lifetime of generational problems, bad decisions, or just bad counsel. Parents want better for their kids. I have yet to meet any incarcerated parent anywhere that says, "Oh, yeah, I want my kid here." That's the last thing parents want. We tell parents you need to be present. You need to make that effort. I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not saying you've got to confront your own decisions, but you must be present. You have a tremendous amount of value in your presence, your encouragement, and your wisdom. It can go a long way in breaking that chain. Statistics tell us that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to end up in prison themselves. If you truly don't want that, then your presence is required to change that.
Joshua: Yes, for sure. I feel the points you bring up are so valid and essential. The connection between children and their incarcerated parents is sometimes understated just because people don't want children to witness the inside of a prison or know about the prison system. But I think you're totally right. Having that connection with my dad throughout the nine years he was sentenced helped me forge the path I want to go down. I would say it's one of the main reasons why I co-founded KidsMates. So for me, fostering that connection between their parent and child is important.
David: If I can add…
Joshua: Yes, please go on…
David: Angel Tree is part of that "Parent's Day Event." It's as much for the parent as it is [for the child]. We're telling parents they need to be present, and here's the opportunity for them to serve their kids because, obviously, during the holiday season, the kids see all the festivities and are reminded of who's not there.
David: And it's very difficult. That's just deep in the human psyche, right. It's usually during the holidays that we think about who's not here for whatever reason. For kids who need parental guidance, it's just amplified. When we conduct these "Parent's Day Events," not only are we teaching, encouraging, and providing materials (really, you're doing everything you can to encourage them to connect), but it's also an opportunity for them to sign their children up to participate in Angel Tree, so their kids find connection, just like they do. This is also where the community comes together and serves the kids in those families.
Unfortunately, children are the silent victims of incarceration. We talk a lot about the victim of the crime. We talk a lot about the experience of somebody who's behind bars. But rarely in that conversation regarding credit and punishment is the family, specifically children, ever brought up. That's a very real thing because there's a stigma attached to it. It's not something that people openly share. I see it because I've worked with Angel Tree for several years. It's remarkable when how many people come up to me and say, "I was actually an Angel Tree child." I had no idea. And the community is working together to build that connection between parents and children.
Joshua: So that brings us nicely to our next question. What are some things people don't understand about Angel Tree? And that you would like them to know?
David: Angel Tree has been around since 1982. I think one of the misconceptions, or one of the things that people don't understand as well, is that it isn't a toy program. Don't get me wrong, there's tremendous value in the child receiving a gift on behalf of their parents. More importantly, the message attached to that gift when the kids receive a note from the parent is that the parent thought of them. We had folks at our church whose children are Angel Tree children, and the last communication they received from their father for two children came via Angel Tree on the gift. It wasn't too long after receiving their gift that, unfortunately, the father passed away behind bars. For the family, that was incredibly impactful because we provided them that last "I love you" and that last "I'm proud of you." There is no more important relationship than a parent-child. I think when people think of Angel Tree, they think it'd be nice to hand out gifts, but we're doing more than that. We're building, and really strengthening, and in some cases, really reconnecting the child and the parent. More importantly, we're connecting the community to that family.
Joshua: Yeah, that is such an important thing to make clear. I think the story you just told definitely shows the impact of Angel Tree. It's really amazing that you guys have that type of reach where you're forging connections between children and incarcerated parents. My next question is, what do you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?
David: One, let them know they're not alone. Stigma is a powerful thing. Shame, unfortunately, is very real. It takes hold, and people will sense it. It's amazing when you start to connect with families in need, and oftentimes you don't know the whole backstory of why. For them, I would say, you're not alone. Find your village. Find support because you cannot be alone. You can't do this alone. There's no way. When dealing with our students inside the institutions, they've got to make lasting and impactful life choices and changes on the inside so that they can reconnect successfully with society when they come out.
On the outside, just because you haven't had your freedom taken away doesn't mean you're not dealing with a sense of abandonment, trauma, or other factors. Specifically for kids, just that stigma is enough. It's hard to raise your hand and say, "this is what I'm dealing with. This is what our family is experiencing." But there are people that care, and there are people that want to serve. It doesn't just feel good. There are other people that have walked that path…a lot more than you might think. Just as an example, 1/3 of the US population has had some sort of interaction with law enforcement. So trust me, you're not alone. Far from it, there are people that have walked that walk before you, and it's important to share that burden with others that have been there before. Unfortunately, it is difficult, and it can be a huge source of stress for children. So know, you're not alone. You can get through it. There are people that have been there and people that understand.
Joshua: Yeah, that's another great point. I just heard you mention that 1/3 of people have had interactions with law enforcement. There's another statistic that one-half of people actually know someone who's been incarcerated. So you're totally right. It is stigmatizing. There is shame associated with it. But incarceration is definitely something that is prevalent, and there will be people to help, especially like you! There are great places to go. For people following this, it's important to know that there will be people to support you.
David: Right. We were all made and meant to not do life alone. Our existence is based upon connection and human connection specifically.
Joshua: Our next question is adding on to the last one. What tips would you give children coping with adversity in general?
David: Some of it, I know, because I've had to deal with it. I dealt with abandonment from my biological dad, who left us when I was very young. Also, being a mixed-race individual in a predominantly Hispanic place, I didn't fit in. I know what it's like to feel like you're alone. I know. Adolescence is a very difficult time, even if you come from the best family, have the means or have all the support, growing up is difficult. Finding your place, finding your purpose, and finding your calling is not easy. It doesn't just happen. It's a process. Some of it is difficult. Some of it is painful. It's easy to think that nobody understands or that nobody cares. It's a courageous thing to step out and share yourself and to share your burdens with other people. The sad reality is human beings like to think I've got this. I can handle it. I don't need anybody. The reality is that's not the way we're made. That's not the way we thrive as human beings. We were made to interconnect and work together. To that end, it's okay to be sad. It's okay to feel what you feel, but it's also important and courageous to step out and not just seek help yourself but also to even seek opportunities to serve other people.
I've worked with kids and worked with families for over 20 years. The amount that I have learned just from listening, watching, and being there is incredible. It really is being present that presents opportunities for you to share your experiences to share what you know. It's also really just so important for kids to know that they have worth. We say it all the time, but it's true. You have value. You're not a mistake. I get it. I had people mock me because of my background and my heritage. What's wrong with you? There's nothing wrong with me. Or you. That's your individuality. There's nobody else like you anywhere. And in my case, you should be grateful there's only one of me because, my goodness, what a mess! (Laughing) But to the point. This world would be so much better if we were just honest with each other and really shared who we are, what we felt, and what we knew, as opposed to just trying to give canned answers, get off the spot, and move on to the next thing.
Joshua: Wow, that's super inspiring. People will love to hear that. Who or what really influenced your thoughts and incarceration? Because you definitely have a lot of wisdom. Who shared those pearls with you or helped you develop your viewpoints?
David: A lot of it has been family and friends. And I saw the changes [in me]. When I was a field director, meaning that I ran our programs on the inside [of prisons], people would say, "weren’t you scared?" I'm not gonna lie to you. It's not a pleasant place. You've visited there. You know, it's daunting. It's cold. But you realize these are just people. Prisoners are just people. Seeing what that environment has done to prisoners and how, in a lot of ways, it did more than just punish them. It really hindered them in life. That is something that I carry with me...When the opportunity came to work with Prison Fellowship, that was really a time to see behind the wall. I just believe that we have to do better. I get there have to be consequences for breaking the law. We need order. We need safety. We need protection. In society, it's what keeps us free. It's what keeps us safe. But to that end, we must understand that prisoners are human beings, whatever the case may have been that landed them. They're not things to put on a shelf, like a Christmas ornament in the middle of summer and don't give a second thought about. The reality is the vast majority of these folks behind bars, at some point, will have to come back into society. If we do not work to address the issues that have landed them there, the cycle will just repeat itself.
This is where the community comes together. There are so many programs, like Prison Fellowship and other groups. We're not alone in this. Organizations do everything from bringing dogs in and training dogs to yoga and doing art. Whatever people bring in, they’re teaching prisoners to reconnect with humanity. When prisoners have that positive interaction with people, it teaches them that they are cared for and that they can make a difference.
We see that because there are so many programs here in California prisons, and the vast majority are for children's causes because, trust me, nobody feels the absence of a child like a parent. There's a great program in central California. I believe it's at VSP Valley State Prison. They do a program where they refurbish and donate bikes to kids. At Folsom, they translate books into Braille. That's another great program. If we don't do a better job of addressing prisoners, working with them, and treating them as human beings, we have done a great disservice as a society.
Joshua: So much to think about and reflect on. As we come to the end of the hour, I have two more questions. Please give us an overview of how things run at Angel Tree, just for those who aren't as familiar.
David: Wonderful. Yes, absolutely. With Angel Tree, specifically, it is an opportunity and a program born out of the need for parents to connect with their kids and the need for kids to be affirmed and loved by their parents. I’m not sure if you know anything about the story. It was started by Mary Kay Beard, who was serving time in prison. She saw that at Christmas time, some of the other gals inside the prison were wrapping up toothbrushes, bars of soap, socks, just these little things, whatever they could get. When she inquired why they were doing that, people told her it was because they wanted to have something to give to their kids during Christmas. That vision she had is why we say it begins with a gift. The gift is not the end all be all. The gift is the vehicle by which we show love.
That's just the beginning, though, because we know those men and women are behind bars and need human connection. They need that support to come out and reconnect successfully with their family, and with employers when they get out in society, everything that they need to keep them out of going back to the institution. It’s also important for families to know that while a parent may have been incarcerated, that parent still exists and still holds an important place in hearts and lives of their family, specifically in the kids' lives. Parental involvement is absolutely crucial for kids, especially when you're dealing with communities of color in the inner cities where I came from. My real dad leaving us when I was little shaped my experience negatively. Incarceration is harmful, but excluding yourself because of shame or stigma doesn't help your child or family. In fact, it harms them.
That is a little bit of an overview of the beginnings of Angel Tree. If you need us, we're here. We have camps we'd love for your child to be a part of. We have these local events and local outreaches that we would love for you to be a part of. That's what is really at the heart of Angel Tree.
Joshua: If you were to give one last piece of advice about how to make a difference. What would you say is your most important piece of advice?
David: It really comes back to just being present. Everybody has good intentions. Most people overwhelmingly, even in prison, have good intentions. They do. How does that translate into making a difference? Well, you gotta get out there. You have to get past your own self. You must get past your own feeling that it doesn't matter. Your presence matters.
I've seen some really remarkable things. It may not be something as visible as having an organization like KidsMates. Just coming alongside other children, other classmates, and other neighbors and letting them know that they have value-affirming worth. I've seen great charitable work done by kids. My own kids, I’ll brag on them a little bit and share this story about my oldest. She's always been fascinated by plays. When she was five years old, she auditioned for a local play. I believe it was “The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet.” Believe it or not, she got the part. I wound up getting roped into it and had to play a monk with a Brooklyn accent. I'll spare you my rendition… It's pretty painful! During that run after one of our performances, there was a young lady who I believe was suffering from cerebral palsy, was blind, and was in a wheelchair. She wasn’t capable of communicating all that well. After the show, the audience members came up to meet the cast. That young lady made a beeline for me because I had a little stuffed animal that I used as part of the role. She grabbed the stuffed animal, and then my daughter held her hand. Though the little girl wasn't verbal and couldn't speak, when she touched my daughter's hand, it was almost a sense of wonder. My daughter broke down later and cried. And for me, that was just this huge realization that my little girl was understanding the worth of human connection and the worth of being here. It was just a corny little community play that we did. Though the interaction wasn't planned, it meant the world to that little girl. Her caregiver told us afterward that my daughter’s presence mattered. So it’s the small things. It's not always the big things. Just start. Even something like our presence can have a lasting impact on people's lives.
Joshua: Wow, thank you so much for all the great insights from your stories about Angel Tree and your personal experiences. I want to thank you so much for joining me today and answering so many questions from your heart.
David: Thank you for the time and for all you do too. It is about connecting and realizing that we’re not meant to do life alone. We must have the courage to stand up and share our experiences and burdens with others. Have a wonderful holiday, everyone!
If you’d like to learn out more about Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, please click here.