OWENSBORO, Ky. (BP) -- Leslie Rice barely digested her Thanksgiving turkey before shifting into high gear to coordinate the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association's Jail Ministry Christmas Mission Project.
"It's my favorite time of the year," said Rice, a ministry assistant at the western Kentucky association. "We usually start talking about it in September. By then, I've already laid out my calendar. December 1 is when we ask for everything to be here."
Started in the mid-1980s by the late Don Bratcher -- the association's first fulltime jail chaplain -- the ministry provides gifts for the children of inmates at the Daviess County Detention Center.
Since prisoners can come from other areas, many recipients live around Kentucky and other states, Rice said.
These aren't popular or high-priced items; toys are to have a maximum value of $10, meaning things like simple board games, footballs or stuffed animals, Rice said.
Yet, when it comes to children 12 and under who often expect nothing, these presents prove that it really is the thought that counts.
"We get letters from the kids, and it gives them a sense of people reaching out and showing love," said Jerry Carter, pastor of Apollo Heights Baptist Church, the first Owensboro-area congregation to wrap presents last year. "This is a way we're able to reach out and minister to people we may never know or see."
After averaging 545 gifts the three previous years, last December's total dipped to 459. Rice attributed that to a decline in the population because the jail housed fewer federal prisoners.
However, Rice said donations increased in 2011 because for the first time each package contained an age-appropriate children's Bible, along with the customary New Testament for each family.
"People stepped up and did more," Rice said. "There's no way of knowing exactly how much we spend. A lot of people shop for toys on their own and just bring us the stuff."
The association office becomes a beehive of activity each December, with churches sending wrapping teams and others helping deliver gifts to area residents about a week before Christmas.
Several volunteers also take shipments to the post office, Rice said, with its postage bill typically running more than $800.
Nearly two dozen churches participate, helping draw the association together, said Jerry Tooley, director of missions.
"It's a big event," Tooley said.
"When we first started, it wasn't a big deal because we had a small jail and not many inmates," said Grace Bristow, secretary at Buena Vista Baptist Church. "Now we need presents to give each person one."
Don Bryant, co-teacher for the seniors Sunday School class at First Baptist Church in Owensboro, said nearly 35 adults and children from the church attended last year's wrapping party, held on a Monday evening.
After starting with a potluck chili supper, volunteers found themselves facing some challenges.
"A lot of the gifts are teddy bears and balls that it's difficult to wrap," Bryant said. "You have to lower your standards some. When it was all said and done, Leslie had to buy gifts for children under 3, so we made a donation for that."
There is no doubt the gifts are appreciated. Each January brings letters -- including one this year apparently addressed by a child from another state. The association forwarded it to the inmate, Rice said.
"You could tell it was somebody 7 or 8 years old," Rice said. "I would have loved to have seen what it said, but we couldn't read it."
However, others addressed to the association have brimmed with appreciation.
"When I picked up the package from the post office and opened it and saw who it was from, my inner man leapt and wept," one grandmother wrote. "I cried almost all the way home.
"They were tears of joy because this is a very positive moment in lives. For the first time ... their dad has thought and bought their Christmas. I pray and believe that he will finish this program and fix his life."
Another said her grandchildren hardly ever get to see their father because they live so far away and their mother works long hours.
"We all miss him," that grandmother said. "I love him a lot. Please pray for You made his children very happy for Christmas."
Because of families' and inmates' circumstances, Rice said it is difficult to follow up on any spiritual decisions.
Still, a Louisville pastor who oversaw the ministry during his time in the area said conversions are at the heart of the outreach.
Don James, former pastor of Sugar Grove Baptist Church near Owensboro, said not only did it help build relationships with inmates, it helped lead some of them to Jesus.
"Oh, yes, people accepted Christ ," James said. "I remember several opportunities we had to share Christ -- deliveries where we had an opportunity to explain why we were doing this."
It also raises the spirits of all the volunteers who participate, James said.
"I wouldn't put this ahead of anyone's profession of faith. But there is something special about people willing to go out and do something for somebody else," he said.
Ken Walker is a writer in Huntington, W.Va. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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