Christmas project helps children connect with incarcerated parents

An annual Christmas tradition at St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha was started to make the season brighter for children of incarcerated parents. Five years later, it remains a gift to the entire community.

“This year, I really have been reflecting a lot on the incarcerated parents, more than the children,” said parishioner Angelina Bottorff, one of the project’s organizers.

“Not that the children aren’t the central part of this program. They are, but I keep thinking, if I was a parent and I was in prison, and I had to spend Christmas away from my children, how would I feel? In some ways, this is something we can do to show compassion to that incarcerated person and to just make their Christmas a little bit lighter,” she said.

The Christmas Angel Tree Project allows parents in prison to select a present for their child and write a note to go with it.

Bottorff said the project lets parishioners participate in a corporal work of mercy – “Visit the Prisoners.” In fact, Father Craig Loecker, St. Leo pastor, learned about the program while offering Masses for inmates at the Douglas County Detention Center. 

It is part of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Christmas program. Prison Fellowship, a national organization, serves and advocates for all those affected by crime and incarceration.

After looking into the program, Father Loecker asked parishioner Linda Leary to organize a program for the parish. Leary ran the project for four years before turning it over to Bottorff and fellow parishioner Amanda Murtaugh.

Murtaugh believes the project helps parents feel they can do something for their children, even if they can’t be there with them.

“It gives them some choices,” Murtaugh said. “It makes them feel empowered. ‘Yes, this is what my child would like.’”

As Advent drew near, a Christmas tree in the church narthex decorated with cards greeted parishioners. Each card included the name, age and gender of a child along with a gift idea from the parent. Parishioners were encouraged to take a card and use the information to purchase a present and bring it back wrapped and labeled to place under the tree.


The child’s other parent, caregiver or grandparent brought the child to a Dec. 11 open house at St. Leo where they enjoyed games, hot chocolate, s’mores and more. This year’s open house included a selfie station for picture taking. In previous years, there was a Nativity play presented by children from the parish.

Families were also welcome to pick up the gifts and save them for Christmas morning or have them delivered to their homes.

Murtaugh said she is humbled by the gratitude families express to her about the project but is quick to tell them it is a parish-wide effort.

The project is more than just gifts and goodies, too. Every Sunday Mass during Advent, the children, their incarcerated parents and caregivers were included in the Prayers of the Faithful for extra strength and grace during the Christmas season.

Leary still remembers many of the children and families she met through the project.

“There was one woman who came to the open house a few years ago,” Leary said. “She told me, ‘I have just gotten a new job, and I am hoping that next year, I can be one of your volunteers.’ It’s the personal thank-yous and the gleams in the eyes of caregivers, the eyes of the kids. It’s that intangible part of giving.”

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