TEEM’s annual toy drive, called Act of Kindness Toy Drive, touches all impacted by incarceration

With the community’s help, a local nonprofit ensures children of incarcerated parents feel love during the holidays

Tony Williamson, a former TEEM participant and now employee, holds two holiday gifts donated to be distributed to Oklahoma children who have a parent in prison this holiday season. (Laura Eastes)

Tony Williamson, a former TEEM participant and now employee, holds two holiday gifts donated to be distributed to Oklahoma children who have a parent in prison this holiday season. (Laura Eastes)

Last Christmas, a small act of kindness had a significant impact on Tony Williamson, which ultimately set his path after being released from state prison.

Christmas packages delivered to Williamson’s two granddaughters in south Oklahoma City became a sign of hope for Williamson, who at the time was incarcerated at Clara Waters Community Corrections Center. As a participant in a diversion program offered by The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), donated gifts through the nonprofit’s toy drive were distributed to his grandchildren.

“I’d never had anybody offer to buy my granddaughters anything,” Williamson said. “So I was amazed and thrilled that they made that suggestion, and I didn’t know if it would come true or not, but it did. And it touched my life so much that somebody reached out for my granddaughters that I told [TEEM executive director Kris Steele] that when I got out of prison, I was going to come and do something for him.”

After his release in June, Williamson made good on his promise, and it eventually resulted in an unexpected opportunity for him.

“I started dumping [Steele’s] trash and cleaning his floors and fixing his leaky faucets and doing everything I could do to help him,” Williamson said. “He offered me a job, and I said, ‘I don’t want a job; I just want to help you for what you did for my granddaughters.’ My granddaughters are still affected by this toy drive.”

Williamson finally agreed to take a job as building superintendent of TEEM’s Oklahoma City headquarters, an unexpected gift to the organization itself, said Courtnie Chaney, the organization’s communications and volunteer coordinator.

“The toy drive has led to a lot of great things in our community,” Chaney said, “and one here is now a great employee.”

Toyland

TEEM’s annual toy drive, called Act of Kindness Toy Drive, touches all impacted by incarceration, explained Steele, a former state lawmaker who serves as the organization’s executive director. TEEM, a faith-based organization, works to “break cycles of incarceration and poverty in Oklahoma through education, personal development and work readiness training.”

“What we hope to achieve with our toy drive is to communicate through sharing gifts that these children are not forgotten,” Steele said. “They are valuable to our community, and the situation they are in is not their fault. We want these kiddos to know they are loved and cared for, that they matter. For the parents who might not get to see their children, this provides a piece of mind. They know that their child will at least have a present during Christmas. This helps reduce some of the anxiety and negative emotions with being separated from family.”

The toy drive targets a population that often is underserved during the holidays, Chaney said. Having a parent imprisoned can be an isolating experience, especially at this time of year, and can lead to long-term problems if the children feel neglected by their families and ignored by society. According to the state’s Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force, more than 26,000 Oklahoma children have a parent in state prison.

“Children whose parents are away and incarcerated, if you look at statistics, they are more likely to have a troubled upbringing as well,” Chaney said. “So being able to step in for these parents in a time that is really needed and just be a connection between the parents and the children during this time so that these children are not feeling left out helps them to feel more connected to their community and helps them to feel cared about and keeps them on a straight and narrow path.”

The drive collecting toys for infants to 18-year-olds continues until Dec. 13, and donors can purchase items from TEEM’s Amazon wish list at teem.org or drop them off in person at the organization’s headquarters. Pickups can also be arranged.

“We ask for electronics, books, art supplies, sports equipment, board games,” Chaney said. “Of course, the most favorite is the electronic items. Kids tend to love that. Smaller kids love stuff like the Hot Wheels, and little girls love the dolls.”

The toys will be distributed according to age group at Santa’s Workshop.

“We set up a little room with a Christmas tree and have all the gifts under there,” Chaney said. “Then caregivers will come here and shop. Some like [the children] to know it comes directly from the incarcerated parent, so they’ll have them come up here. Others like them to be able to open them on Christmas day, so they’ll keep them under wraps and a surprise until then.”

Lasting impact

There is a reason TEEM leaders called the toy drive Act of Kindness, explained Steele. Anyone who has ever shared an act of kindness knows just how much of an impact generosity can bring. Kindness can inspire small ripples.

Donated gifts stand for more than just toys and enjoyment. These gifts can help incarcerated parents maintain contact with their children, which is especially difficult when imprisoned, Steele said.

“The research tells us efforts to maintain the bond between the child and the parent in a positive, pro-social manner reduces the likelihood that the pattern will repeat itself in the next generation,” said Steele, acknowledging that some studies seem to show that children with a mom or dad or both parents in prison are more likely than their peers to end up behind bars. “A small act of kindness goes a long way.”

These days, Williamson can be found around TEEM’s headquarters, making small repairs and keeping the six-decade-old building in good shape. As he replaced a door lock not far from the box collecting toy donations, Williamson said he and his granddaughters have even more to look forward to this Christmas.

“They asked was they gonna get a present this year, and I said, ‘You’ll probably get two presents this year, one from me and TEEM because I have been working here for a while and it’s changed my life,” he said. “You just don’t understand how much it has changed my life.”

Print Headline: Kindness act; With the community’s help, a local nonprofit ensures children of incarcerated parents feel love at the holidays.

Jeremy Martin and Laura Eastes

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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