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Vermont Group Delivers Gifts — And Hope — To Children Whose Parents Are In Prison

Two kids work on wrapping gifts at a table.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Raz Hansen, left, and Phoebe Sarandos wrap presents that will be sent out to children whose parent is incarcerated in Vermont. It's part of an effort called Hope Beneath the Tree.

This can be an especially tough time of the year for families with a loved one in prison. A small group of volunteers in Vermont is working to bridge the distance between an incarcerated parent and their child, one gift at a time.

Susan Randall is a private investigator who works on behalf of defendants on both state and federal criminal cases, and she spends a lot of time in prisons around Vermont.

About five years ago, she noticed her clients getting especially anxious toward the end of November.

“Between Thanksgiving and Christmas it was palpable,” Randall said. “You’d just see people start to circle the drain because they felt really incapacitated. They couldn’t buy gifts. They can’t be home. They know their kids are waking up Christmas morning or, you know, Hanukkah, and there’s nobody buying them presents.”

So Randall had an idea: She sent out a few email messages to her friends and family, and asked them to sponsor an inmate’s child or two and purchase a present for them.

She tracked down about 15 of her incarcerated clients’ children that first year, and it grew to about 50 the next holiday season.

“And the next thing I know, it kind of went viral,” Randall said. “Like people would forward my email ... and then six of their friends would say, 'Oh, how do we get in on this?'”

Last year about 120 kids received gifts through the program, which they’re now calling Hope Beneath the Tree. This year they’re hoping to get presents to about 200 inmates’ children.

"If children have a sense that the greater world cares about what happens to them — that there are people in the world that are actually paying attention — I think it does make a really big difference," Randall said.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Susan Randall, left, and Dana Valentine look over a spreadsheet as they decide where to send a blanket from the group Hope Beneath the Tree. Randall and Valentine hope to reach about 200 children this holiday season.

This is still a very grassroots group — Randall is working with a friend, Dana Valentine, and their kids have been helping out.

Valentine said the program gives the sponsors a glimpse into the Amercian prison system.

And she said when someone has a gift to buy for a child whose mother or father is in prison, it can be a reminder that there are real people affected by mass incarceration.

“This is an education piece for the people who are donating,” Valentine said. “It’s something they’ve never thought about sometimes. They haven’t thought about, ‘Wow, what happens when someone goes to jail? And who gets left behind?’ It gets them thinking, and this is a population that is underserved and forgotten about and people don’t want to think about people who are incarcerated.”

"This is an education piece for the people who are donating. It's something they've never thought about sometimes. They haven't thought about, ‘Wow, what happens when someone goes to jail? And who gets left behind?'" — Dana Valentine, Hope Beneath the Tree volunteer

Most of the sponsors get a name and age of a child, and they send out their own gifts anonymously. But there are also foster homes involved and confidentiality issues to deal with, so Randall and her group do a lot of their own packing and wrapping, too.

Raz Hansen is Randall’s son, and he’s been helping out by contacting local businesses and wrapping gifts. Hansen wrapped up a pile of socks while Randall tried to figure out where a green John Deere truck would end up.

“For children who don’t have that parental figure and who may be looking for a little bit of hope around the time of Christmas, being able to receive a gift like that is really important,” Hansen said. “And also for the parent who’s in prison, being able to know that ... their child is basically receiving presents and stuff like that on Christmas is also super important.”

If a parent is incarcerated in Vermont but the child is living out of state, Hope Beneath the Tree tries to track the family down. Through the years the group has sent presents all around the country.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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