More than a dozen families gathered over chicken nuggets and French fries to celebrate the holidays at a party where children danced to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and Christmas carols in a Brentwood Country Club ballroom Saturday.
The event, organized by Safe Harbor Mentoring Program and C.H.E.L.A. 4 Kids in Floral Park, was meant to help children with incarcerated family members restore a sense of normalcy during the holiday season.
“You go to school, and kids are talking about what their family are doing. [You hear other kids say]: ‘Oh, my dad got me this or my mom got me this.’ What are you saying?” said Kyle Braunskill, executive director of the mentoring program. “Now you can say: ‘My dad got me something for Christmas.’ Whatever it is or however small it is, you still got something. So you don’t feel left out and isolated.”
Braunskill, 43, who was incarcerated for five years two decades ago, said the party also helped the inmates keep the family bond because some of the children were told that the gifts came from their incarcerated parents.
“When you are incarcerated, you feel helpless. You committed your crime. But beyond that, you are still a parent. And you left your children. Your children felt like you abandoned them,” Braunskill said. “It seems small. … But it’s important because it keeps the bond, and it keeps them hopeful.”
The Rev. Roy Kirton, 68, of Amityville, still remembered the bitter disappointment he felt on Christmas Day when he woke up to find no gift.
“My father left when I was 7. … My mom promised me that dad was gonna give me a gift. But I didn’t get one,” he recalled Saturday. “I cried myself to sleep that night. I was deeply hurt. It took me a long time to get over it.”
So about 25 years ago, Kirton and a small group of volunteers began delivering gifts to children whose parents were in jail. That effort later evolved into an annual party with food, donated gifts and a visit from Santa Claus.
“When a parent goes to jail, the child goes to jail too,” Kirton said. “I feel I’m giving them hope. I’m helping these children before they get broken like me.”
Gillean Gradney, a caretaker of a 12-year-old girl, said she brought the seventh-grader to the party to show her there’s more to life than painful experiences.
“She’s a good kid. … She’s gone through a lot,” said Gradney, 54, of Ridge. “Being here now, it exposes her to something other than abuse and neglect.”
As the music waned and the crowd thinned out, Karen, who declined to give her last name, watched her 8- and 10-year-old place their heads close to the wrapped presents as they shook the boxes.
This Christmas will be the first that Karen's daughter and son spend without their father. The Franklin Square mother said she had been working overtime shifts to save money to buy gifts.
“It’s a little hard, especially during the holidays,” Karen said. “But it is what it is.”
As each of her two kids filled a clean white trash bag with presents, the 39-year-old mother said: “This is a real blessing.”