Angel Tree
Podcast #49 — Aired December 11, 2014

Did you know that thousands of families each year take part in a program to reach out to some of the 2.7 million children in the United States with an incarcerated parent? The program is called Angel Tree and it’s goal is to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners. This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re talking with Jim Liske, the CEO of Prison Fellowship. Liske will discuss how Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program help reconnect families and gives joy to children at Christmas time.

 

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Jim Liske
President & CEO, Prison Fellowship Ministries

Jim Liske joined Prison Fellowship as chief executive officer in July 2011 and assumed the additional title of president in 2013. Since taking the helm of the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families, Liske has led the organization's efforts to foster the moral rehabilitation of prisoners through faith-based programming, advocate for restorative criminal justice policies at the state and national levels, and mobilize churches to be agents of positive change in the lives of those affected by the cycle of crime and incarceration and in their communities. As the leader of Prison Fellowship, Liske has visited more than 100 prisons and jails throughout the United States to dialogue with inmates and prison leaders about how our nation can create more humane, transformative correctional facilities. He speaks frequently with legislators and prison officials about the importance of faith- and values-based moral rehabilitation for prisoners, and the need for a fund

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
This week on BetterWorldians Radio were talking with Jim Liske, CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Jim will discuss Prison Fellowships Angel Tree program that helps reconnect families and gives joy to children at Christmastime. Jim Liske joined Prison Fellowship as Chief Executive Officer in July 2011 and assumed the additional title of President in 2013. Liske has led the organization's efforts to foster the moral rehabilitation of prisoners through faith based programming, advocating for restorative criminal justice policies at the state and national levels and mobilizing churches to be agents of positive change in the lives of those affected by the cycle of crime and incarceration and in their communities, as well. As the leader of Prison Fellowship, Liske has visited more than 100 prisons and jails to talk with inmates and prison leaders about creating more humane, transformative correctional facilities. Jim speaks frequently with legislators and prison officials about the importance of faith and values based moral rehabilitation for prisoners and the need for a fundamental shift in Americas approach to criminal justice. Jim, thanks so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Jim Liske
It is delightful to be together with your entire family, so what a unique opportunity to work with a family thats been so active in doing wonderful things in communities. So thanks for having us today.

Raymond Hansell
Youre very, very welcome. Id like to begin by having you tell our listeners a little bit about what Prison Fellowship does?

Jim Liske
We drive in our country the changing of the question dealing with corrections. For 40 years we basically asked ourselves how do we get bad people out of our neighborhood? Thats driven our numbers of prisoners in the federal and our state systems from about 230,000 to 2.3 million. What we suggest is we ask a different question, and the question is how do we bring good people home? Because with that 2.2, 2.3 million people in prison 700,000 prisoners are coming home to our communities every year, and so we ask ourselves in corrections in America how do we bring good people home? Prison Fellowship focuses on the restoration of those affected by crime and incarceration, which means we also take into account what victims are saying and what communities are saying because we want men and women to come home from prison, not just to survive and avoid breaking the law, but we want them to thrive. We want them to bring their experiences back to communities so that they can be part of making our community safer.

Raymond Hansell
So how did Prison Fellowship get its start? Tell me a little bit about the Founder, Chuck Colson?

Jim Liske
Well, Chuck Colsons name will be familiar to some of us who are of a particular age, and we remember that Chuck was part of the Nixon White House. He was known as President Nixons hatchet man and known as an individual who would do just about anything that was necessary to support the ideas and the ideals of the President. Chuck got caught up in the Watergate net, ended up going to prison himself. Went from Special Counsel to President Nixon, the office next to President Nixon, to a jail cell in Alabama. He had a transformation, a spiritual transformation during the process, where he realized his heart, his morals were not what they should be. During that time in prison he recognized that he was there with other men and women in facilities that in his mind and a quote from him, whose minds and hearts were corroding. And we were basically saying that there was a group of people in our country who were not valuable. Chuck came out, started Prison Fellowship. He added Justice Fellowship to that shortly after and working in advocacy to change public policy. And after that began an aspect of the ministry that helps the country at large understand that everyone is created in the image of God, that everyone has value, regardless of what theyve done in life. And Chuck spent his years, until he passed away just a couple of years ago, advocating for the inmate. And now after almost 40 years of ministry we retain that focus and that heart of our Founder, to reach the inmate in the prison cells across America and help them come home as quality individuals.

Raymond Hansell
Help them come home, what a wonderful phrase. Tell me, Jim, how did you personally get interested in working with prisoners and their family?

Jim Liske
It was a very personal story for me. I had a family member go to prison. I was a pastor for 28 years before I came here and for about 18 of those years I had to admit that until I had a personal experience with the correction system and someone in my family being behind bars, as a pastor I really did not pay a lot of attention to this issue. And I had to admit that I was wrong, and not only was I wrong in not recognizing a group of people that are in community with me, but wrong because theres a deep spiritual belief that I have that when Jesus says visiting the prisoner is something we do, I wasnt doing that. And I went through a transition, the church I was leading at that time went through a transition in the State of Michigan. We got involved deeply in reentry issues, started some not-for-profits in that because I understood that I had a family member that if we didnt change the way we looked at the inmate he was going to come home to a community that wouldnt accept him. And now we have the question of how long does the sentence last? And, fortunately for my family member, he came home to a community where hes doing well. Hes been out for Three years, but thats not the case for the vast majority of the inmates coming back, but it was a family experience. It was hearing my own mother not knowing how to talk about a family member who was incarcerated. Realizing that we just havent given people tools to talk about this issue. And now we can see that its very much an issue across our country with a number of things happening. With the conversation, even in the last election talking about criminal justice, and the amount of money were spending and not getting as an end result a safe community. An understanding that I developed then in getting to know men and women in prison who were coming home, you know, our best asset for safe communities are really the people coming out of our prisons because they know why crimes are committed and they can help us keep those crimes from being committed.

Raymond Hansell
So what do you feel is the biggest misconception about prisoners and about the families of prisoners?

Jim Liske
Well, particularly with the families we make an assumption and, again, I dont think its a conscious thing. I think we fall into the misperception that if one individual in the family has broken the law then the entire family must be tainted by this particular issue. Instead of understanding that in the vast majority of the situations the children and the members of the family that are left in the free world are the first victims of their family members crime, that many of them have been also been given a dishonest understanding of what their family members life was like, particularly the children. We know we have 2.7 million children in America with at least one incarcerated parent, 2.7 million children who had nothing to do with their parents crime. And we tend to with this out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality, asking the question how do we get bad people out of our community, once the quote-unquote bad people are out of our community we tend to now ignore the families that are left. We in some ways cause them to be persona non grata, instead of recognizing that of that 2.7 million children without intervention we know that about 70% of them will become incarcerated themselves. We know that third grade reading levels have everything to do with being able to project whether or not criminal behavior will take place. And looking at some of the very key indicators we have that if we intervene in these areas we can literally reduce crime in our country. And when we fall into the misperception we actually avoid maybe one of our greatest opportunities to improve ourselves as a culture and as communities. These are people that werent part of the crime. We also have a misperception that someone who ends up behind bars that thats kind of the last chance you get. I continue to meet people behind the bars who belong behind bars, theyve made bad choices, theyve chosen to break the law, theyve violated the social contracts that we have with our communities to care for one another, but theyre there to be rehabilitated and restored, to learn their lesson. And when they come home we have to get beyond the understanding that they cant be reintegrated as productive members of our society.

Raymond Hansell
Talk to us a little bit about the stigma and shame that sometimes comes along with being the child of a prisoner and how Prison Fellowship and your organization helps to change that?

Jim Liske
Ill bring you the comments that I get from the children. We have a much more open society than we did a number of years ago. I think were all probably about the same age, and there were a number of issues 40 years ago that you just didnt talk about. Families just ignored them. Weve come a long way. Its been very positive that we can have open dialogues about things, but we are still not at the place where we can have an open dialogue about a parent being in prison. Children feel, to quote many children, they feel invisible. They feel as though that the people around them dont have the tools to talk about what its like to have a parent who is incarcerated. They kind of fall in between this crack because, you know, do you have a mom and a dad? Yes, I have a mom and a dad. But you live with your mom? Oh, are your parents divorced? No, theyre not divorced. And theres this leading up to my father is in prison, my mother is in prison. But then we dont have the ability, we havent given people the tools to say, well, what is that like for you? Do you visit your mom or your dad? And oftentimes our educators are left with, okay, how do I work with this family. We then have the caregivers who are thrown into being single parents or I meet a lot of grandparents who have become the caregivers for their children because a mom or a dad has gone to prison and there wasnt a healthy family unit there to begin with. And many grandparents find themselves suddenly parenting again or foster care families who step up to invite these individuals in. And the struggle that these children deal with, we know that they dont do as well in school because they dont have the parental assistance at home. We know that their chance of being in poverty is higher than individuals who are not from incarcerated families. And, again as I said, we also know that they have a much, much higher rate of criminal behavior than children who dont have an incarcerated parent. And I think, again, we need to ask different questions of them. And theres a lot of wonderful things going on across our country and a number of partners that we have in this area, where were starting to ask those right questions, but it is something that I think we need to concentrate on. Our misperception is that somehow this family is so broken it cant be restored, and thats a very poor misperception because these are people just like you and I.

Raymond Hansell
Yes, lets talk a little bit about restoration. I would like to hear from you and Im sure our listeners would how this, how your work has helped to restore the dignity of prisoners. Give me some examples of that?

Jim Liske
You know, Im going to start right with Angel Tree because when a father or a mother can sign their child up for something thats a normal parenting behavior theres dignity in that because theyre doing something thats quote-unquote normal. When we can work with an inmate inside the walls of a prison and train them to be a leader, and then people in the correction system understand that and utilize their abilities while theyre still incarcerated, theres dignity in a man or a woman being able to contribute to the community that theyre in, even if that community is a correctional facility. Theres dignity in learning how to do a budget. Theres dignity before you come out in learning that I can be responsible for my money. Theres dignity in learning that you are an individual of value and talent. When many of the individuals behind bars in our country have been told their entire lives that theyre not going to amount to anything. And so when they encounter a group of people who are willing to sit down with them and say, no, your title is not criminal, your title may be accountant, your title may be community organizer, your title may be entrepreneur. Im thrilled every time I hear that we have inmates that come out and start a new business, and it is very regular. And we have entrepreneurial classes that we teach inside the prison walls. We have competitions that we hold across the country I love going to. We have small business plan competitions, where businessmen and women from the free world go in and judge the business plans that the inmates have developed. In some parts of the country we have individuals that will actually do micro financing for the winning small business plan. They have dignity and understanding that they havent hit a dead end and that their name is not criminal, that they have value. And with Angel Tree, like I said, when they can make a phone call or at a visit ask their child, what is your favorite game, what is your favorite color? Because theyre being coached, hey, these are normal parent questions because many of these inmates have never, they dont know their childs favorite color, but when they understand my name is not prisoner, my name is parent, they start understanding their value.

Raymond Hansell
You shift that whole consciousness, thats wonderful. So what are the biggest challenges? Before we go to break, tell us the biggest challenges that the children of the prisoners actually face on a day-to-day basis?

Jim Liske
The biggest challenge would be the issue of poverty. The vast majority of children in our country that have an incarcerated parent come from the urban core, some American cities, and they come from situations that are in poverty, theyre below the poverty line. Theyre going to schools that are subpar because of the lack of funding. Theyre in areas of our country that are very high crime, and they struggle with just some of the very basic needs of life. And thats one of the things thats so powerful at Angel Tree is because people go see that and it motivates people who are not from that neighborhood to do something about it. They struggle, one of the other big struggles is just a sense of security within a family unit. For a multitude of reasons the majority of children with incarcerated parents come from homes that are very disjointed. Many of them are raising their younger siblings because of the situation thats there. And theyre experiencing crime on a day-to-day basis, I think thats a very important point for our listeners to hear. Crime is normal for a multitude of these children, its a normal way of life, and theyre being raised in systems and situations where what you and I would consider improper behavior, its being taught to them by default as proper behavior. Prison is a normal rite of passage for several million of our children in our country.

Raymond Hansell
And, obviously, the challenge here for all of us as we face these 2.7, 2.3 million people who are looking to come back home in a positive way, is to break this cycle, to break this cycle now. So were going to take a break right now, but well talk more with Jim Liske about Prison Fellowships Angel Tree program in much more detail when we get back. In the meantime, I want to tell our listeners about our Indiegogo Campaign that is now funding at A Better World dot com slash kids game. A Better World for Kids lets children have fun and make a difference through good deeds & positive thinking, both in the online virtual world game and in the real world. Additionally, A Better World for Kids has promised to pledge 10% of its post campaign net profits to charities that help children. So please go to A Better World dot com slash Kids Game to learn more and to help fund A Better World for Kids. Well be right back.

Raymond Hansell
Hi, youre listening to BetterWorldians Radio, and now were speaking, right now, with Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske. Lets welcome back Jim and MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
Hi, Jim.

Jim Liske
Hey, MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
Jim, can you tell us a bit about Mary Kay Beard and how the Angel Tree program came about?

Jim Liske
You know, Mary Kay is one of the most anomalous that I know because shes about five foot six and maybe 120 pounds, but when Mary Kay was arrested and went to prison about 41 years ago now she was on the FBIs Most Wanted List, was the most accomplished safecracker in the country, and her poster in the Post Office, if you would, said that she was proficient in any known firearm. And so this little lady went to prison, was incarcerated in Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. And she went through a spiritual transformation, and one of the things she noticed when her eyes were opened to the needs of the people around her is that moms would go and buy things from the commissary in prison and they would buy shampoo or they would buy a toothbrush, and they would bring it back to their cell and they would wrap it in toilet paper. And when their children would come to visit them in prison before Christmas they would give them these very simple gifts. And Mary Kay said I remember thinking to myself, well, those children arent going to like that because she wasnt a mother herself, but what she realized was the children really didnt care what they were getting, what they cared about was that they were getting a present from their parent. And so when Mary Kay got out she literally went down to the local mall in Birmingham and she said can I put up a tree and hang the names of children of the women I was incarcerated with on the tree, and the mall said please do that. And then what she realized is all of the names were gone in a day. Chuck Colson, the Founder of Prison Fellowship, got word of this that year, and he went and talked to Mary Kay, and he said, Mary Kay, can we make Angel Tree part of Prison Fellowship? And since then it has gone from one Christmas tree in Alabama because of the heart of a woman who wanted to care for those who shed been in prison with to really being a program thats in 21 countries around the world serving the children of the incarcerated.

MarySue Hansell
Well, thats amazing. Do you happen to know if her parents were incarcerated?

Jim Liske
Mary Kays parents were not incarcerated. Actually, Mary Kays story, she was raised by a good mom, but did have an abusive father and much of her life and her decisions were framed by this dysfunctional family that she was raised in.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, my. And how do people get involved in the giving of gifts with the Angel Tree program?

Jim Liske
You know, it starts way back in June, and we think we have to prepare for Christmas early, but our great volunteers and our partners in the correction world, MarySue, begin in June. And we go into the prisons around the country in all 50 states and we sit down with inmates and have them fill out an application for their child. For many of those parents, as I mentioned in the earlier segment, this is the first parenting activity that theyre part of. And they need to list favorite games, favorite color, the age of their child, the birthday, and then they write a personal note. Many of them write Im sorry for my actions. I will love you forever. Youre my princess. And very personal notes that go on the package then thats going to be given to the child. We take those applications and Prison Fellowship and our staff in cooperation with corrections officers across the country, you know, we vet those to make sure that as best to our ability that the information is correct. And then we provide them for people who in their own communities say we want to deliver a gift in my zip code. Church groups, businesses, civic organization, college groups. We have colleges where their Athletic Departments take on names of Angel Tree children in their community, and then those individuals go out and they shop with this list that mom or dad has provided. They call the caregiver and make an appointment to go to the door, knock on the door. And, in my case, my wife and I do this every year, and I always if the child is a smaller child I get down on my knees and I present the gift to the child, and I read the message, I say this is a gift from your dad, from your mom, and this is what your mom or dad wants you to know today. And I get to read that message, see the twinkle in a childs eye, that their parent, even though theyre not there, has not forgotten them at Christmas.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, thats lovely. I guess they are all different types of gifts, I mean do they actually give a gift that they know the child wants?

Jim Liske
You know, thats what we really endeavor to do with the parent is we try and include something that would be personal and that the child would want. And many people who do this and have been doing it for years, they even ask the caregiver when they call is there something specific that they need? And, you know, we have a guideline, about $25 for the gifts, but, oh, my goodness, most people dont stay within those guidelines. My own parents, MarySue, my father, they got a child and it said that the child likes sports. Well, my dad didnt know which sport so he bought a ball from every one of them, and delivered that to the children. And you can imagine what a young man would be like when the star football player from the University of Michigan shows up at your door, which actually happened last year, and knocks on your door. And here he is, the one that you hear about in the news gets down and in the name of the childs father. That child asked his dad in January, how did you get that athlete to come and give me your Christmas present? Well, it was because someone cared enough to make sure that that name, that childs name was on that list, and someone cared enough to help us do this ministry.

MarySue Hansell
Well, so these are all volunteers that, I guess, belong to a church group, youre saying, and then they pick up the gifts and personally deliver them to children? Is that typically how it works?

Jim Liske
Thats typically how it works. Some people and, again, its businesses, we have businesses around the country that do this as their Christmas activity as a staff, where they do this. And we have some organizations that have an Angel Tree party, so they invite the children, and they invite the caregivers to come to a party. They feed them dinner and they have a festive occasion for them. We have churches that do that. So we help every group kind of do it the way they feel it would be special in their community. We want people to own this and really feel as though its what theyre doing and its what theyre giving. And what we hear, MarySue, is in many of the situations the relationship doesnt stop at Christmas, that Angel Tree is really, its a starting line and not a finish line. Church groups will invite them to join with them in other activities. Church businesses get involved in helping with some of the financial needs that are there. And we have civic organizations, like I mentioned some of the colleges get involved, have gotten involved even in tutoring and mentoring of these children. And so we encourage and try and give tools that would help these individuals use Angel Tree as a beginning of caring for these children.

MarySue Hansell
Its a wonderful thing to do and give you the spirit of Christmas, too. I mean you really feel like youre impacting the lives of the parents and the children. What kind of feedback do you get from the kids and the parents when they get these gifts?

Jim Liske
January and February is some of my most delightful months here at Prison Fellowship because we get the stories back in. The men and women in prison are so moved by this that since October we receive checks from inmates, MarySue, well receive a $14 check or a $28 check from an inmate who writes a little note and says, Angel Tree has been so important to my family I want to be part of it continuing on. I mean you can imagine how moved I am when I read that because inmates make anywhere between 20 and 40 cents an hour at their jobs in the correctional facility, so these arent individuals that have means, but it meant so much for this individual to know that their child had a gift with their name on it, that they were able to send a message, that someone partnered with them in the act of parenting. We have inmates that tell us, prisoners that say, you know, when my child came back and shared with me their excitement at receiving a gift it made me determined to be a better person while Im doing my time. If someone is willing to do this for me then Im willing to do it even while Im still incarcerated. We hear children saying things like I knew my mom wouldnt forget me at Christmas. One of the things that I hear repetitively, and from adults who were Angel Tree children 25, 30 years ago, one of the things and I never thought about this, right, because Ive never lived in that world but I hear people saying when I went back to school in January, when all of the other kids were saying I got this from my dad, I got this from my mom, I didnt have to stand on the other side of the room. I could be part of that conversation, I could say, yes, and I got this from my dad, too. I didnt have to be ashamed see, theres that shame thing.

MarySue Hansell
Yes.

Jim Liske
I didnt have to be ashamed of my father.

MarySue Hansell
Now I understand that kids still need more sponsors?

Jim Liske
We do, we have about 20,000 kids right now that were still seeking to serve and were determined thats going to happen, but if any of your listeners wish to get involved in helping us do that you can go to AngelTree.org and all the information on how to help doing that is right there on that website. And wed love to have you partner with us to touch base with these kids. You know, again, a lot of these kids in our northern climates, as youve already mentioned and you guys are doing some awesome stuff, putting warm coats on kids, but thats an issue for kids whose parents are incarcerated in Michigan and Minnesota and North Dakota and all of those places. And oftentimes its hats and mittens and coats that go along. We have a group of people in northeast Michigan that I met with, and theyre a group of senior citizens. The ladies crochet blankets for every Angel Tree child and they send blankets out, a real personal touch. And they say, well, we just feel like grandmas to all these children, and it is so fulfilling for them. Theres this unbelievable benefit when youre caring and youre giving. We all know about how joyful it is at any time of the year to just give an act of kindness, to be altruistic, to extend ourselves and be generous with people. And I hear that from the people that participate in Angel Tree. The vast majority of people who participate in Angel Tree once never leave us, they want to do it over and over and over again.

MarySue Hansell
Thats a beautiful feeling, too. It really does benefit people to do good, as we know just from our study of positive psychology, when you do good for people it helps your own wellbeing. And talk about pay it forward, that seems like even the inmates are paying it forward when they put in money and so forth.

Jim Liske
They are very much so. And I think, MarySue, its so important for me that we connect this to the issue of safe communities. That we understand that not only are we paying this forward to a child, to a family, to a parent, but were paying this forward at a very communal level. Because when we introduce the Angel Tree child to another way of doing life. And I dont want in any way to be critical of the incarcerated parent because, you know what, I havent lived in their shoes, I dont know what kind of tragedy theyve dealt with in their life. Theyve made a poor decision, and were very careful, it doesnt help the inmate to excuse them or not hold them accountable. The data is very clear that unless a prisoner understands that theyve injured someone because of their crime, even if its just injuring the sense of safety in a community, their chance of going back to prison goes up. And so theres dignity in being held accountable. Theres dignity in being told you can have control of your own life. You can make decisions that keep you out of prison. So I dont want to, at all, be judgmental, but we do need to give these children a different look at how life can be done, what does it mean to be a citizen of a community. When we do that were reducing crime. The data is clear that we reduce the chance of that child going to prison, of committing a crime, when we reach out to them in a manner that says to them you matter. And this is what people of a healthy community do, we care. That impacts the childs sense of what they can do in the future.

MarySue Hansell
Well, yes, you mentioned that 70% of the incarcerated parents children go to prison, did I hear you say that?

Jim Liske
Thats correct, thats the data that we see, and we understand that thats the affect of ignoring this situation, of trying to go out-of-sight out-of-mind with it, of ignoring whats happening in our urban cores with the issue of poverty. We still measure the number of cells were going to need in the corrections system in America by what third grade reading levels are, MarySue. We know theres a direct correlation between how well a child reads in third grade and whether or not they will engage in criminal behavior. Theres some very simple things we can do for these children, and one of them is teaching them reading in the third grade, showing them a different way of living, showing them the importance of being part of a community, showing them that people should care when it doesnt benefit you. Those are all very basic principles of living in community. And Angel Tree is one of the things that do that, thats why we also partner with mentoring and tutoring organizations. We believe very clearly that when the parent gives us a name of a child that theyre entrusting us to a level of stewardship. So we have some wonderful partners across the country in mentoring and tutoring, and we make sure that the children who we receive are on the list of being part of those things. In Nebraska we have a wonderful partner, former athletes that actually played at the University of Nebraska, who now are involved in a mentoring program that former Coach Osborne has set up. And they mentor all of our Angel Tree children in Nebraska. And we have those partners all over the country. So, again, its more than just that gift, its helping that child engage in other activities that will help break the cycle of crime.

MarySue Hansell
Yes, what other kinds of mentoring programs does Angel Tree have? That sounds very interesting.

Jim Liske
We participate in ensuring, as I said, that there are tutoring, mentoring in tight situations. And, again, we dont do those directly, but we make sure the names of these children are there. We have caregivers that call us and we direct them to different places. We have scholarships for camping that we provide. We work with organizations across the country to raise additional funds for the children of the incarcerated to make sure thats there. We are constantly advocating for the children of the incarcerated. Oftentimes they dont have a voice in their community. And so what does it mean? Were involved in movements of improving education across the country, making sure that the voice of the incarcerated child is heard at the table. And so camping, mentoring, tutoring. And helping churches understand what does it mean to specifically have ministries that touch this group. And how do you train your congregation to engage this area. So houses of faith we have training for them thats involved to help welcome these children into their midst and give them a sense of a new community.

MarySue Hansell
Thats great. Do you have any favorite success stories that you might share with our listeners about the mentoring program?

Jim Liske
Well, youre challenging me to pick from this long list of success stories, but probably one of the most personal ones actually I got involved in before I came to Prison Fellowship and I guess thats why Im such a strong advocate, MarySue. Is before I was in this position I was involved in Angel Tree in a local community. And one of my friends, his name is Doug, went to prison. When he went to prison his children were young, elementary age, and Dougs family is one of the success stories because there was a group of people that stayed with him. And his children were Angel Tree children. When I came to Prison Fellowship they were in high school then, and I sat right down with them one weekend when I saw them. And I said, okay, tell me about Angel Tree, why was it significant to you? And the young lady, shes the youngest child, she was in tenth grade at the time, she said, well, I always knew that thered be a present from my dad under the tree, I always knew that even though dad wasnt there personally that he was going to be represented. And the young man said to me it caused me to understand that my dad hadnt forgotten me and it caused me to understand that even though dad wasnt here he was doing all he could as a father. You know, as a young man thats a pretty significant statement to understand that dad was accepting responsibility for his behavior and dad was doing all he could even though he wasnt there to stay engaged with the family. And I said, well, tell me what that meant when dad came home? And the young man looked at me and he said it meant that in some ways dad had never left and it was easier to have dad come home and to have a relationship with him because Angel Tree made sure that at a time when family is what we all talk about that part of my dad was there, a direct quote. These are teenaged kids now. The interesting thing about this success story is when Doug came home from prison we actually hired him in our situation to be the Executive Director of a Reentry program. Doug was a highly educated individual when he went to prison, a very capable leader, and when he came home we hired him. And we said, you know what, Doug, none of us have come home from prison, we want you to help us understand how to welcome people back from prison. So not only was Angel Tree significant in his kids lives, it was significant in his life. Doug is still in southwest Michigan right now leading an organization that helps reentering offenders when they come home, be re-assimilated into the community and help their families be strong. So its multifaceted. When I ask his wife what was significant for you? She looked at me and she said, Jim, we couldnt afford presents under the tree. She said I could barely afford a tree, and to know that Angel Tree was going to provide some significant gifts for my children under the tree it was almost as though Doug was still here bringing in a paycheck and helping provide for his family. See, its this bridge, its a reunification bridge that helps families get back together again after incarceration.

MarySue Hansell
It sure is.

Raymond Hansell
Wonderful, wonderful work. Great stories and wonderful work that you guys are doing. Were going to have to take another break right now. And, as a reminder, I just want to mention again that our Indiegogo Campaign is now funding at A Better World dot com slash Kids Game and that the game is about having fun for the kids and making a difference through the good deeds & positive thinking both in the game, itself, and in the real world. And you can actually help us make this game a reality by going to A Better World dot com slash Kids Game, backing us and passing it along. The more eyeballs we get, the more people see this, the feedback that were getting is they love what were about to do and they want to get behind it and they want to back it. So please go to A Better World dot com slash Kids Game. Well be right back.

Raymond Hansell
Hi, were back live with Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske. Jim is talking about a program called Angel Tree, and its goal is to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners.

Gregory Hansell
Hi, Jim, this is Greg.

Jim Liske
Hey, Greg, how are you?

Gregory Hansell
Im doing great. Thank you.

Jim Liske
Awesome.

Gregory Hansell
Yes, thanks. Can you tell us about the Angel Tree Star of Victory Award?

Jim Liske
The Angel Tree Star of Victory Award is one of my favorite awards that we give out because its all about someone who has been an Angel Tree recipient and has really taken their life and, if you would, out of what most of us would consider shambles has really become not only an advocate for people who have been in a situation like them, but a community leader and has really proven that wherever youre starting in life that that doesnt have to be your finish line. And so we take great joy of handing that award out to people all over the country every year. And it is so beautiful to see that individuals were able to have people come alongside of them, were able to see their value and their worth, and were able to see that what they went through is actually a benefit, and that that can all be turned around and that can all be used as a platform to do awesome things in their community.

Gregory Hansell
Yes, thats amazing. I understand that Miss America 2012 was the inaugural winner, whats her story?

Jim Liske
Erika Harold actually was one of those individuals that she is just such she continues to be, shes on our Board right now, she Im sorry, Ive got the wrong Miss America. Weve got two Miss Americas involved here. Yes, Miss America 2012, forgive me, her dad was incarcerated in Wisconsin, and when she actually was on the platform she said that her she was going to advocate for the children of the incarcerated, and she continues to do that now even after shes worn her crown. And she, throughout the country, every stop that she made she raised awareness of what it was like to be a child whose dad was in prison, what it was like to have that shame, what it was like to go visit your dad and not be able to touch him, but only talk to him through thick glass. And she just did some awesome work, but again theres a young lady who didnt see this as something that was going to hold her back, she saw it as something that could be a platform for her. And she was an Angel Tree child for a number of years, as was her sister, and now her dad and herself and her family continue to advocate. I mentioned Erika Harold, who actually is a former Miss America. She was able to actually come alongside of Miss America 2012 and help her with some of that. And two Miss Americas working in conjunction to raise awareness of this issue of children of incarcerated parents.

Gregory Hansell
That is amazing and its so amazing that she could receive all that for those many years and then find a way to give back. I think its incredible. I wanted to ask you what example that you hope this sets for other children with incarcerated parents?

Jim Liske
You know, just to set the example, Greg, that number one youre not defined by what your parents do and, man, thats a tough thing to learn, isnt it?

Gregory Hansell
It is.

Jim Liske
But youre not defined by what your parents do. Yes, Im talking to you, Greg, thats kind of ironic, isnt it? But we wont go there, we wont get into that. But youre not defined by that, and you can make your own choices now and you can learn from whats happened in your parents lives. And thats part of Angel Tree, too, where we try and teach the parents to teach that to their children, that when a prisoner understands Im not defined by my past behaviors, I can be defined by future behaviors, thats part and parcel of this. But I would hope that Angel Tree children, every time that they receive a gift and they see somebody, you know, doing something for them that they will say, well, I can have that, I can be that. We often say around here in Prison Fellowship that the inmate is the answer, the inmate is not the problem, the inmate is the solution. And I would say that about Angel Tree children. Angel Tree children are not a group of people that we need to turn into a project, theyre a tremendous asset for our country because they have a story to tell about how achievement can take place in the midst of struggle. An inmate is not the problem, the inmate can be an answer, the inmate, our inmates across the country know how to break the law, so who better to ask about how to stop that? Theyre experts in it, and we can engage them in the solutions. And I would hope Angel Tree children would hear that message clearly, that I have a story to tell, I have a story thats powerful, and I have a story that can change the world.

Gregory Hansell
I love that way of thinking about it, you know, that this is how to achieve in the midst of struggle, how to take responsibility for oneself in the midst of these circumstances. I think thats wonderful. I know youve visited over 100 prisons and advocate for prison reform. What do you think are the biggest issues facing prisoners and their families?

Jim Liske
Greg, I always start with complimenting our criminal justice system. We have the best criminal justice system in the world. We have the best judicial system in the world. I meet wardens who dont see people in their correctional facilities as criminals, they see them as people, they see them as having value. We have corrections officers, we only hear, you know, in the news the negative situations, we have hundreds of thousands of corrections officers across this country who care about the people that are in those facilities. But one of the things that we need to look at is continuing to advance that thought, that every individual incarcerated in our country is created in the image of God, they have value. And even to get ourselves to starting to understand, you know what, the next great inventor may be in a prison cell today. The next great entrepreneur may be in a prison cell. The cure to cancer, could it be there? You know, its thinking the way we do about individuals in the rest of our society. Greg, some people are going to choose to go back to prison, and some people are going to choose to participate in behaviors where for the sake of public safety they need to remain in prison. That is unbelievably sad to me that people would make that choice. But we dont ever, were never accused of being soft on crime because were very high on holding people accountable for their actions. But 700,000 people, over 95% of the people in prison today are coming home to our communities, so theyre going to be in line at Walmart with us, so theyre going to be at school functions with us. We need to communicate to them that you need to choose to come home and engage in your community where your giftedness is being a contributed factor to community health. And we need to embed that into our criminal justice system. We need to teach that. We have a wardens training program where thats the core of what we train wardens, to steward the people inside your facilities as if they are individuals who are coming home to do great things, see them as having potential. Again, its that question that I started the program with, we need to ask how do we bring good people home? We are still asking how do we get bad people out of our neighborhood? If we would shift the question we would get a very, very different answer and our programming would change. Im a huge advocate, Greg, as we are as an organization, that we move away from some of our sentencing guidelines, three strikes and youre out, maximum, minimum sentences, fixed minimum sentences. They havent contributed to public safety, theyve only contributed to a rise in our prison population and a rise in cost. When we incarcerate someone who has a chemical addiction and we dont treat them for that chemical addiction while theyre incarcerated we get a chemically addicted person out of prison at the end. We have not achieved the goal of reforming the behavior and restoring a person, and there are other less expensive, more effective ways to do that than incarceration.

Gregory Hansell
Yes, well, let me ask you because youre doing such important work and I want to make sure, you know, we only have a few minutes left for our listeners here whats the best way for people to support Angel Tree?

Jim Liske
Again, go to AngelTree.org, the website is very self-explanatory, even I can manage my way through it. If youre in a situation where, man, were right towards the end of the year, I dont know how much time that I have, financial contributions help us to empower other people to get this done. And so thats really for most people the easiest way is to invest financially. And I would say that if thats what youre going to do dont feel as though youre just throwing money at something, I want you to visualize that if I go and contribute financially, I want you to visualize that youre empowering a person who is walking up a porch, maybe a porch that has a broken railing and a house that doesnt look like there really should be anybody living in it. Thats really the case in many, many times. Thats the case in the community that I will go to and my wife and my family will go to, extreme poverty. I want you to visualize that if you contribute financially youre with that person walking up that porch and knocking on that door. If youre a community group or church or business would like to engage, were taking groups right up until next Monday, so right up until the 15th, you can go on the website, theres a way to fill out. We will endeavor to get you names of children in your zip code area. Were not asking anyone to solve a national problem. Were asking them to do this right in their own community. Well endeavor to do that. That, too, is right on AngelTree.org, and you can make that happen there.

Raymond Hansell
Well, this is amazing work that youre doing and we compliment you and all the people associated with this amazing program. For our listeners, you can find out more about Prison Fellowship and the Angel Tree program by going to AngelTree.com or PrisonFellowship.org. Jim, thanks so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio, and great work, keep it up. We wish you all the best. We realize here today that weve got an issue and weve got to deal with it, and you guys are doing great work in doing just that. So thank you for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Jim Liske
Thanks for having us, and Merry Christmas to all of our listeners.

Raymond Hansell
Yes, thank you very much. For our listeners, please join us next week on BetterWorldians Radio when well be speaking with Kyle Zimmer, the President and CEO of First Book, an organization thats working to provide children in need with brand-new, high quality books for the first time. Joining Kyle will be Senior Advisor Carey Palmquist, as well. Before we go, Id like to remind you that our Indiegogo Campaign is now funding again at A Better World dot com slash Kids Game, and were off to a reasonably good start, but we still need your help, so please check us out. A Better World for Kids lets kids have fun and make a difference through good deeds and positive thinking, both in the online virtual world game and in the real world. Additionally, A Better World for Kids has promised to pledge 10% of its post campaign net profits to charities that help children. So you can become an active backer of this mission and bring out the very best in our kids and encourage them to do good deeds and pass it along to your friends and the constituents and contacts, as well, so that they can become aware of what were doing and what we hope to do and how were trying to make a big difference in the lives of kids all around the world. Until next time, everyone, in the meantime please be a BetterWorldian.