Celestial Ministries co-founders Antoinette and Stanley Ratliff. Credit: Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

NORTH LAWNDALE — As the chilly weather forces Chicagoans indoors, the holiday season gives families a reason to come together and show each other just how much they care.

But the season can be one of the most emotionally challenging times of the year for families with loved ones in prison. While many get to celebrate togetherness, others must reckon with the separation and the complex feelings of longing and resentment towards someone who isn’t there.

North Lawndale has an estimated 500 young people with a parent that is incarcerated in prisons downstate — not including those in Cook County Jail, according to Celestial Ministries co-founder Antoinette Ratliff. She said the absence of a parent due to incarceration can be traumatic for children.

The prison ministry of Ratliff’s nonprofit aims to lessen the burden on families struggling to stay connected, a burden she said is especially heavy at times of celebration.

Once a month, Ratliff’s prison ministry drives their 15-passenger van downstate for visitation hours so that for a short time, families can be together again. Families have to register with the corrections department ahead of time so that they can be cleared to visit the prison.

The ministry typically makes the trip on the third Saturday of each month, though Ratliff said they are willing to accommodate schedules to make sure loved ones can visit their families. To get in touch with the Celestial Ministries to join a trip, email Ratliff at aratliff@celestialmin.org.

The drives to the state prisons are long. The closest one is Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill. But for trips to other, farther prisons in Illinois’ sprawling corrections department, the trips can reach upwards of four hours, Ratliff said.

The long trips help youth stay connected to their parents. But they are just as critical for the people behind bars.

“Those that are away need to know that they are loved and they are thought about…it’s important that they understand that you keep that connection open. For love and forgiveness… you have to show up,” Ratliff said.

Ratliff knows firsthand the devastating loss of a loved one to prison, and the overwhelming challenge of trying to keep a loving family together and express love despite the distance.

Years ago when her husband and co-founder of Celestial Ministries Stanley Ratliff was in prison, Ratliff struggled to make sure that her son maintained a strong relationship with his father. But with help from her community, she was able to stay connected.

“People were kind to us. They used to drive us to see him when he was in prison,” Ratliff said.

Christmas time was also tough for Ratliff. While other children were opening gifts from mom and dad, Ratliff didn’t want her son to feel like his father had forgotten him.

But with the help of an Angel Tree program that Stanley Ratliff had signed up for while in prison, he was able to send a gift for his son — a red fire truck for him to unwrap on Christmas morning.

Now the Ratliffs are making sure that others in Lawndale can find comfort in the small but tremendously meaningful gesture of sending a gift for the holidays. Each year, Celestial Ministries partners with Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program to fulfill hundreds of gift wishes for kids with a parent in prison.

“Our goal is to make sure that the kids understand it is from your dad or your mom. It is not from us.”

This year they have a list of 900 children with an incarcerated parent, including 500 Lawndale kids. Each child will get a gift for the holidays from a parent who is unable to buy their kid a present themselves.

“It’s just love. Showing them that mom or dad didn’t forget about them, and they are loved by their parents, regardless of them being away,” Ratliff said.

Gifts from a child’s wish list are fulfilled by sponsors like Old St. Pat’s Church, the Steans Family Foundation, UCAN, and the newest sponsor, Chicago’s Painters District Council 14, which is giving gifts to 250 kids.

Individuals can also sponsor a child, or donate gifts to the pool of around kids who do not yet have a sponsor to get them a gift from their list.

Gifts for the Angel Tree program at Celestial Ministries. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

Denise Burns is a sponsor who stopped by Celestial Ministries to drop off a delightful selection of card games, Baby Alive dolls, toy cars and LEGO sets for the kids with a parent who is away.

“My kids are bigger now. I don’t have any grandchildren or anything. … I kind of take the resources I would have spent on my own kids years ago and direct it this way,” Burns said.

The gifts are also a way of giving families an entryway into finding social services and programs that can offer assistance year-round. Children who receive a gift are invited to join the organization’s music program and drumline, the Celestial Ministries School of Fine Arts.

The ministries also provide families receiving gifts with referrals to other programs in the area, like counseling services with trauma-informed care organization I Am Able.

Celestial Ministries is still looking for sponsors for about 150 more kids. For details on how to become a sponsor, email aratliff@celestialmin.org.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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