MONTICELLO — Sara Hartness may not think of herself as Santa, but she has a similar task — delivering toys to children.
However, Hartness, a member of St. Mark Church in Monticello, is just the messenger, giving a toy to a child from their parent who is incarcerated.
“Jesus gave his life to us as a Christmas present. When he was born, he knew that that was his present to us,” Hartness said. “This is a gift given with no strings, no requirements that you have to go to church. I really want them to see God’s love through our actions. Talk is cheap.”
For about eight years, Hartness has led the Angel Tree Program at St. Mark, part of a national program with Prison Fellowship that has guided churches and prison ministries to help provide gifts to children with one or both parents incarcerated for more than 30 years.
The irony of leading this ministry isn’t lost on Hartness, who has been a practicing attorney in Monticello for almost 28 years. She works in general litigation, primarily handling divorce and child custody work, and serves as a part-time judge. She is also running for the 28th District Court judge.
When Hartness served as a prosecuting attorney, the children of people she sent to prison were sometimes the gift recipients.
“I’ll go to deliver presents, and it may be a case I worked on a domestic relations issue with the family; there are a lot of people I already know,” Hartness said. “I don’t care whose kids they are, the kids didn’t ask to be here. It’s our job … to take care of the kids in our village and I take that job very seriously.”
Inmates find out about the program through Prison Fellowship spreading the word through prison ministries and information is sent out about six months in advance. Father Phillip Reaves, then-pastor at St. Mark, wanted to bring Angel Tree to the parish and Hartness “happened to be standing there.”
St. Mark’s Angel Tree outreach covers Monticello, Bradley County and surrounding counties. This year, 24 children are on the list to receive presents. Inmates fill out paperwork, including the name and number of children they are requesting to receive a present, how old they are, what they’d like to get for them and a note to be written on the card for their child.
“So these gifts are not coming from a stranger at some church they don’t know. The stranger at the church is just delivering mom or dad’s gift,” Hartness said.
St. Mark parishioners then volunteer to buy and wrap a gift, usually about $15 to $20, and give it to Hartness, who delivers them with her husband Steve Dec. 23-24.
When Hartness drops off a gift to a home, she said, “I would just rather tell them who I am and tell them I’m from St. Mark’s. I don’t identify myself as an attorney. I don’t identify myself as a judge. Through our actions we show the love of God.”
Despite being incarcerated for about eight months, Sam Kinney III will be able to give his five children Christmas gifts this year thanks to the Angel Tree at St. Mark. He was released this month after serving time for a probation violation and submitted his children’s names while still incarcerated. In those situations, Hartness said the recently released parent picks up the gift and is able to give it to their child in person.
It’s something to be grateful for, said his mother Jacqueline Alexander and his father Sam Kinney Jr., who have each been caring for their grandchildren.
“It’s rough. We thank God for the Angel Tree,” Alexander said. I’ve raised my children, but I’m raising my grandchildren too … I really appreciate it, because sometimes I have all five in my home at one time … anything they give they’ll be grateful.”
Kinney Jr., who has known Hartness for years, said, “She’s always helped me, so I think the world of her.”
“When you’re locked up, you can kind of think about what you should be doing and if you see a program like this, you sign up hoping if they call your name, your kids will at least get a gift since you can’t,” he said. “It’s a good thing.”
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