Angel Tree recipient gives back to program helping children with a parent in prison

FRESNO, Calif.

Rita Rios said the program changed her live forever and she'll never forget the day she and her sister received their favorite Christmas gifts.

"We could both tell you what we got in detail. We remember that day, it was incredible," she said.

Rios was just 16-years-old and living a picture-perfect life with her family when her parents got divorced and her father started selling drugs.

"Prior to his involvement in all that, my Mom was a teacher's aide at a school, a librarian and they were both volunteer firefighters," Rios said. "My father was a foreman at a ranch and had a very honest and stable living. My sisters and I were involved in school, activities, homecoming princesses and queens, I mean; we were living the American dream."

She said he was working to turn his life around when he made one last drug deal and got caught. He was then sentenced to eight years in prison.

"I felt abandoned and angry, disappointed," she said. "Our first Christmas with our father was really rough. We basically went from having a normal, decent life to being technically homeless and staying with family members."

That's when they got an unexpected visit at a relative's home.

"When my Mom opened the door I saw two strangers standing there and thought that's weird," she said.

Turned out the strangers were volunteers with the Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree Program. The program reaches out to the children of inmates over the holidays to fulfill their psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

"How important do you think this is to the children?" asked ABC30 Reporter Linda Mumma.

"Very important," answered Prison Fellowship Regional Director Joe Avila. "The majority of these children are very impoverished. They have nothing and to get something for Christmas is special, but it's extra special when they realize it's initiated from their Mom or Dad that's in prison."

Rios said she received a sweat suit, blow drier and makeup kit along with a letter of apology from her father. Gifts she says she kept for years because they meant the world to her and helped her repair her relationship with her Dad.

"It had been maybe six months since I had seen him outside of the prison and I was so angry, I was so disappointed and at that point I really felt like he loved me," she said. "It was a turn of events for us and our family."

Now she's giving back to the program, collecting gifts for more than a hundred kids in the Valley and she plans to deliver each one herself.

"I just received an email that there are 26 children ranging from Sacramento to Monterrey all the way to San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield that are unclaimed by sponsors so I just put out a request from friends and family on Facebook and that's where I got most of my donations," she said.

Rios described it as "her calling" and said she couldn't imagine what it would be like for those children to wake up in the morning and not have a Christmas.

"Some of the kids that were sponsored didn't even ask for a toy. They asked for a coat, warm clothing. A lot of teenagers asked for personal care products. I'm talking about body spray, lotions, deodorant, and toothbrushes. Items that most of us take for granted," she said.

Avila added Angel Tree children are seven times more likely to end up in prison just like their parents so the organization makes an effort to reach out to them at a young age and throughout the year.

For more information on how to donate to the program visit

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