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Although their father is serving time in a Utah prison, his three children in Salt Lake City will receive Christmas presents from him this month for the fourth consecutive year.

The children are always excited when they unwrap the toys and clothes they get on Christmas Eve but their real joy is the knowledge that their dad, who has been behind bars for arson for more than four years, is thinking of them. They smile as they describe the gifts he picked out last year.

"I got a Transformer shirt from Dad," 5-year-old Sage said proudly.

The father is one of the incarcerated parents nationwide who participates in Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, which finds volunteers to purchase and wrap presents for inmates' children. The volunteers get wish lists from the kids' caregivers and the prisoner is listed as the giver on the gifts.

Each child receives a toy and item of clothing, although volunteers often buy more. The presents are delivered to the home or distributed at a party held by a sponsoring organization.

Jim Liske, president and CEO of the Virginia-based Prison Fellowship, said the organization gives a guideline of $25 per child but added, "No one I know sticks to the guideline. People are incredibly generous."

In Utah, Prison Fellowship struggled this year to find enough churches, businesses, civic organizations and individuals to sponsor children. With 1,740 children signed up and nearly 500 without a match as a mid-December deadline loomed, the organization turned to a central California church for help.

The church came through with gift cards that are being mailed to the kids with a Christmas card and a handwritten note from their parent.

Prison Fellowship is still taking monetary donations that will be used wherever the need is greatest this year and is encouraging sponsors to start signing up now for 2015.

Inmates sign up their children in the summer and help compile a wish list, a process that makes them see themselves as a parent and not just as a prisoner, Liske said. Fathers, in particular, will say that calling to learn their son's favorite color or their daughter's size is one of the first parental activities they've participated in, he said.

Liske said the sons and daughters of inmates get a boost, too, when they go to school in January and can say their dad or mom got them something.

"One of the most important things is building that bridge between the parent and the child," Liske said of the program.

There are about 7,000 inmates in the Utah prison system.

Sage and his sister and brother — Samantha, 11, and Stryker, 7 — first received presents through Prison Fellowship in 2011. Their father, who is serving a term of 5 years to life for aggravated arson, was arrested in 2010; that year, mother Christy bought presents that she said were from her husband.

The Angel Tree program makes the holiday happier and helps the kids bond with their father, said Christy, who works two jobs.

Prison Fellowship is a Christian ministry that was founded in 1976 by the late Chuck Colson, who was known as President Richard Nixon's "hatchet man" and served seven months in federal prison for obstruction of justice related to the Watergate scandal.

The Prison Fellowship Angel Tree — which was started in Alabama in 1982 by Mary Kay Beard, who spent six years behind bars for grand larceny and armed robbery before being paroled — is designed to provide a more hopeful future to the 2.7 million children in the United States who have an incarcerated parent. The program is active year-round and sends thousands of kids to summer camp each year, according to the Prison Fellowship website.

Twitter: @PamelaMansonSLC —

Want to help?

I To donate to the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program, visit or call 1-888-55ANGEL (1-888-552-6435).