Some of the loneliest kids in The City have a mother or father in jail, and without a gift to unwrap during the holidays, that emptiness can lay heavy on the heart.
Hermann Reiss, a lay chaplain who visits San Francisco inmates at least three times a week, realized that more than eight years ago. That’s when he began collecting toys for the inmates’ children and handing them out at Christmastime.
The volunteers at Highlands Christian Jail Ministry, which Reiss heads, collect donations so the young sons and daughters of inmates at the main San Francisco jail, located in San Bruno, will get at least one gift for the holidays. Today, he expects more than 200 kids to walk home with a little something.
“Inmates think its great, of course, because they know they can’t do anything while they’re in there,” Reiss said. “And with the kids, there’s a lot of sparkling eyes and faces. It really makes us feel good that something nice is happening to the community.”
Eileen Hirst, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, said the holidays are a critical time for inmates and their families. In addition to services offered in several religions, from the Jewish community to the Muslim community, inmates are treated to special meals, caroling and added holiday visiting hours.
“It’s a time when we need to keep people connected to their family and the community.”
Hirst said the holiday season is the busiest time of the year for family visits, and one of the toughest parts for inmates is that even if they could afford a gift for a son or daughter, they would have to arrange for a family member to buy and deliver it.
“There’s a common thread in jail: the people in there are poor,” Hirst said. “Otherwise, they would be out on bail.”
The ministry gives out tickets to each child under 12 who comes out to the jail Saturday for a visit. The tickets are then exchanged for gender-specific toys, games, educational items and school supplies.
Reiss said the giveaway concept is nothing new to the jail population. In the 1970s, Mary Kay Beard spent six years in prison, and after being paroled she came up with a plan to deliver packages to the children’s homes in the name of their incarcerated parent.
Reiss said the ministry’s concept is different in that it takes it to the jail, a place where a family can help cure some of those holiday blues.