By Chuck Gibson
It is said that most great events come from a good idea. This was the case recently in Apopka where a church, a local ministry, a prison and a whole bunch of children participated in an event later to be known as the JAYA Tree Project.
Returning from a visit to the Orlando Work Release Center (OWRC), a place that houses inmates awaiting release from the Florida prison system, Pastor John Hampton phoned Randy Green, mission’s pastor at Journey Christian Church with an idea to show love and the Christmas spirit to the families of the incarcerated women.
The idea? Place a tree in the foyer of the church with tags shaped like ornaments of the names and wanted gifts of every child of the nearly 60 mothers living at OWRC.
Pastor Randy contacted Al and Sue Hoover, the founders and directors of Just as You Are Ministries (JAYA) and shared the idea with them. After getting permission from the work release center to proceed with the project, they began the work of gathering names, ages, gender and desired gifts from the mothers and Kasye Conley, Thelma Wilkerson led a group of volunteers at Journey Church and Al and Sue Hoover along with the volunteers of Just as You Are Ministries began the hard work of making the project happen. In the end, there were 117 tags to hang on the tree representing 117 children.
On the weekend that the project was announced to the church, the response was nothing less than astounding. Every tag was taken and according to Al Hoover, many people were left wanting to participate but were left without a tag. Some of these folks purchased gifts anyway and donated them to the project.
The following weekend every single tag was returned with not one but at least two purchased gifts per child and on December 16th, the packages began shipping to the children. “In all my years of ministry, I’ve never seen 100% results from something like this” said Randy Green when asked about the results. “Not only did every child receive multiple gifts but Journey people donated the wrapping paper to wrap them in”. When asked why the church took on this project Pastor Randy answered “We want to help bring dignity to these ladies who are mothers before anything else. Yes, they are in prison but they still have the heart of a mommy and part of the transition into society should most definitely include rebuilding the relationship with their children”. When asked about the children he replied “watching the joy on the faces of these “silent victim’s” made every bit of work and effort worth it”. When asked if this was going to be an annual event, he replied “I most definitely want to see this become an annual event, but we’ll have to see”.
On Saturday night and Sunday morning, the church was treated to a 4 minute and 16 second tear fest in the form of a thank you video given by Al, Sue, Just as You Are and the mothers of the OWRC. If adding dignity, a sense of pride and a complete social shift in the minds of these women was the goal of Journey and JAYA Ministries then, mission accomplished. “I didn’t know that people like this actually existed”, “you made my child’s Christmas just so wonderful” and “I haven’t seen my kids in two years and to get to see their faces was more than I could ever imagine” were just a few of the emotional responses voiced from the mothers after Christmas morning.
When asked why these mothers don’t buy the presents themselves, Al responded “there are several reasons that these ladies can’t buy gifts for their children. One reason is that not all of the ladies have obtained employment and most of those who have are only getting minimum wage, part time hours and the percentage that they actually get to keep for themselves is less than 35% of their net income. Out of this 35%, they must buy bus passes to get to work, clothes for work and personal hygiene items that they need. Even if they had enough money to purchase gifts, most of the items would be considered contraband in the center and thus would not be allowed inside the facility. Being able to do this for their children would be something beyond their wildest dreams.”
The JAYA Tree project, in the words of so many people was a much needed breath of fresh air in a time that is largely known as a hustle and bustle time of fast paced shopping, spending, parties and festivities. Seeing the tears and laughter from these mommies who get to help put a joyful smile on their children’s faces would definitely classify this good idea as a great event.
Chuck Gipson is a full-time missionary with Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), part time volunteer with JAYA, and a correspondent with The Apopka Voice.