FLORENCE — It was the low point in Debbie Dixon’s life.
With the world celebrating Christmas, she was behind bars at Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, serving a six-month sentence for writing bad checks.
All Dixon could think about was what her three young daughters were going through.
“It was just the worst thing,” Dixon said. “Being there for six months, it changed my whole outlook.”
When she got out, Dixon decided to make a positive out of that terrible experience. With that, she founded Christmas for Kids, a program that provides Christmas gifts for children of incarcerated parents.
More than 20 children participated in the program when it started 23 years ago in the Shoals.
Today, 768 local children are signed up for the program. Christmas for Kids has grown nationally, with more than 21,000 children participating in 18 states, Dixon said.
Through the years, numerous volunteers have assisted with Christmas for Kids, including three who specifically are close to Dixon’s heart: her daughters, Stephanie Tompkins, Karah Henry and Beth Cook.
“She’s come a very long way,” Henry said. “I had no idea at the time that everything would turn out this way. The first year, the program was really small and very local. It’s become so big.”
As part of the program, parents make out a Christmas list for their children. Making the list gives the parents a role in the gift-giving. Volunteers either buy gifts or donate money for the program so other volunteers can purchase gifts. They also are invited to wrap the presents and deliver them to the children.
Henry said she loves seeing the joy on the faces of the children when they receive gifts.
“It’s very emotional,” she said. “We have always been very involved in this program because we could kind of relate to the kids, since we had gone through it. Now that I have kids of my own I know how hard it must have been on mom. I could never imagine having to go through the experience of being away from them.”
Henry was in the second grade when Dixon was incarcerated.
“It was very difficult for me because I was a mommy’s girl,” she said. “I don’t remember it too well because it was so long ago.
“I remember that it was hard for us during the time. I’m so proud of mom for what she’s done with this program.”
Businesses and groups have become annual contributors to Christmas for Kids. First Metro Bank branches have an account established that allows anyone to come in and donate money to the program.
Christmas for Kids is run completely by volunteers, including Dixon.
“The Shoals got this thing rolling by being so generous,” she said. “This area comes through every year. Volunteers always tell me they just want to see all the children get something for Christmas. They recognize that the children did nothing to deserve to be in their situation.”
The University of North Alabama’s Christian Student Center is a regular stop for Dixon this time of year. For the past 10 years, students at the center have shopped for, purchased, wrapped and delivered gifts. As of the latest count, the center is sponsoring 27 children this year, Dixon said.
Center Director Danny Pettus said the students always rally around the program, and the Communications Department helps by donating a large bag of toys.
“The students have really responded to it, I guess because of the circumstances of the children,” Pettus said. “We knew these families were sort of overlooked by some of the other programs.
“Just Debbie’s own story and her commitment and how unselfish she is provide inspiration to us. We just want to help Debbie provide for the children.”
For Dixon and her family, the program is a major part of their Christmas tradition and has brought them extremely close.
“My whole family, even my mom and dad, take a lot of calls,” Dixon said.
One of the most rewarding aspects of Christmas for Kids through the years is that some of the children who were helped during its early years have grown up to become adult sponsors for the program.
“A lot of kids in this program stay in touch with us,” Dixon said. “I had to pull over and cry recently because one of the grandmothers of a kid we’ve helped sent a message thanking me. I never dreamed Christmas for Kids would become this size.”
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 740-5739 or firstname.lastname@example.org.