Earthly angels spread holiday cheer

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 15, 1999

DEBBIE MUSTIAN / L’Observateur / December 15, 1999

For many children in the River Parishes, Christmas arrived a wee bit early this year thanks to gifts and treats provided by the Louisiana Angel Tree Ministry Program.

On Saturday, the Arcuri Recreation Center in LaPlace was brimming with holiday cheer and the sounds of Christmas carols as kids filled the hall to participate in a ministry that provides gifts to children of incarcerated parents.

The Rev. Dennis Rape, First Baptist Church’s minister of education,welcomed the children, along with their mothers, grandmothers and other relatives.

“We are celebrating Christmas today, and we are glad you are here because you are a special person,” Rape said.

The kids were treated to a huge array of party and snack foods, pizza and holiday goodies, including homemade cookies and cupcakes iced in Christmas colors. They visited with each other and thoroughly enjoyed thetreats.

Lt. Michael Hoover with the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Officewove through the crowd, chatting with many youngsters.

Before the children went forward to receive their gifts donated by members of the community, Hoover offered some words of encouragement to the group.

“If you read your Bible, and you really should, read John 3:16,” Hoover said.

“God taught us how to follow a path to heaven.” Hoover reminded the children about the importance of believing in themselves.

“We believe in you,” he said, speaking on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office.

“And you should always believe in who you are.”Once given the signal by local Angel Tree program coordinator Helen Banquer, the gifts were distributed. Anthony Baudier, 5, and his sister,Chastity, 6, were thrilled with their stack of brightly-wrapped packages.

“I got Rugrat books,” Chastity said, noting that she watches the popular cartoon series on television. Anthony’s eyes lit up when he unwrapped hisbig orange basketball. The brother and sister duo snuggled together afterthey watched each other open their presents; a beautiful Nativity pop-up book caught their attention immediately and they began looking at it right away.

Meanwhile, Llynn Juniors, 11, was very happy to find a pretty pair of angel earrings in her group of presents. Her grandmother joked, “Maybe you canbe an angel now.” A big smile spread across her face when she unwrappeda collection of cosmetics designed for teens. She said she was going tosave her additional gift to unwrap on Christmas.

“We don’t usually open them here,” Llynn explained. “We take them homeand save them for Christmas.” (She made an exception this year with twoof her gifts because she wanted to show L’Observateur readers how much she appreciated her Angel Tree sponsor.) Llynn attended the Angel Tree party with several of her siblings, along with her mother and grandmother. Llynn’s grandmother said she was verythankful for the ministry and the gifts donated by folks who care about local children.

“These kids all live with me,” she said, pointing to Llynn and her siblings.

“Their mother’s been in California, my mother just died and I got in a wreck,” she added, sitting in her wheelchair with one leg propped up.

Thanks to the Angel Tree Ministry, the children in Llynn’s family were blessed with Christmas presents and prizes this year.

The Angel Tree Ministry provides gifts for the children by partnering them with different church, school and community groups. It’s a nationalprogram that is combined with a prison ministry designed to help prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families throughout the year.

About 120 children in the River Parishes received Christmas gifts this year. The program, sponsored by First Baptist Church of LaPlace, receivedassistance from numerous businesses in the area, including River Parishes Hospital, River Parishes Travel Agency, Corner Stone Cafe, Allied Express, McDonald’s, Donut Hole, Bayou Steel Corp., Coffee Cafe, Come Back Inn,Mabile’s Meat Market, Winn Dixie, Sicily’s and the St. John Sheriff’s Office.Members of the church’s organizational committee for the Angel Tree Ministry included chairperson Helen Banquer, Susan Billings, Vicky Gennaro, Elaine Hood, Eileen Kippes, Susan McCollum, Kathy Smith, Brenda Strode, Katrina Tamburello and Gayle Varsel.

Banquer added a new twist this year by soliciting help from St. CharlesParish educator Jenny Lind. Through Lind’s guidance, students in St.Charles Parish schools adopted children in the Angel Tree ministry program. Ashley Guidry, a student at Destrehan High School, said, “Ourhome room had a blast. We decided what to buy and we got so much stuff.”Lind said the program was so successful in St. Charles Parish that manyhome rooms requested additional Angel Tree names because the students’ response was overwhelming.

“As many as 500-600 St. Charles Parish students may have been involvedin this through their home rooms,” Lind said.

Those who donated gifts and goodies to the Angel Tree Ministry but were unable to attend the party may be assured that their efforts were appreciated. It doesn’t take any more proof than hearing a softlywhispered “wow” coming from the mouth of a wide-eyed 5-year-old boy, awestruck because he found a big, orange basketball underneath brightly colored Christmas wrap.

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