LONG ISLAND CITY — There’s nothing like seeing children’s eyes open wide when they spot wrapped gifts underneath a decorated Christmas tree. Their sprint to the tree reminds one of previous Christmas Day mornings when Santa did get your letter and brought you everything on your list.
But being with family while opening up those gifts is really what it’s all about, especially at Hour Children. Hour Children is a leading provider of prison- and community-based family services in New York to support women and children as they reunite, stabilize, and transform their lives. The program has exponentially grown since 1986 when founder Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, CSJ, helped develop a home for children whose mothers were incarcerated. It now meets the needs of prison families by providing housing, mentoring, workforce education, and child care.
“When they first come home from prison, our mothers have very little,” said Jeffrey Smith, development associate at Hour Children. “What they have in abundance is a desire to give to their children and a dream that Christmas will be a special time. The readers of The Tablet helped make this dream a reality, and the joy was palpable.”
Thanks to readers’ generosity to The Tablet’s annual Bright Christmas Campaign last year, children at one of the organization’s six communal homes received toys, clothing, and gift cards. Hour Children was also able to hold a Christmas Candyland-inspired party for current mothers and children, as well as former residents.
Smith emphasized how near and dear the Bright Christmas Fund is to the organization’s heart — because it helps make a merry Christmas celebration possible for so many families.
“Not all of our mothers grew up in stable families, and many grew up in poverty. For them, Christmas was not something they knew experientially, even though they want to share it with their children,” he said. “Experiencing Christmas at Hour Children, they learn how to cultivate family traditions. This enriches the quality of the family life they share with their children.”
Since former and current residents attend the annual Christmas celebration, it resembles a big family reunion.
“For the adults, there was great joy that comes with renewing old friendships, seeing how much the children have grown, and learning what they have gone on to do. Our mothers experienced the joy that comes with being able to give to their children and see in their faces the joy that this moment brings,” Smith explained.
“For the children, of course, there was the joy of receiving Christmas gifts from their mothers. Many mothers and children alike, experienced amazement — the realization that the life they heard about, dreamed about, and saw in the lives of others could be theirs, too. This happens every year at Christmas and is always very powerful to witness.”
Hour Children is grateful for the support during the holidays, especially as it celebrates its 28th anniversary as a foundation this year.
“But we remember that, in our early days, it was through the support of the people in our parishes that we were able to give a home to those first children,” Smith continued. “This generosity has remained a constant, and the people of God continue to make our work possible.”
This Christmas will be celebrated differently at Hour Children due to the ongoing pandemic. The prisons have been on lockdown since March, and visits have been minimal.
“There is a moment every year when we offer prayer for women and men still in prison — people who dream of coming home and rebuilding their lives. We can’t do that this year because we are not able to gather,” Smith said. “However, Christmas 2020 is still a fitting time to pray for them.”
He continued, saying, “Because we are unable to enter the facilities to run our programs, most of the mothers still in prison have not seen their children in over six months. We will put together gift bags for these children and deliver them to their homes. But, still, nothing takes the place of holiday time with your mother.”