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MC’s Angel Tree, Mustard Seed Programs Help Donors Share Christmas Cheer with Those in Need

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Every November, Debbie Norris walks over to the Caf at Mississippi College, selects a girl “angel” from the MC Prison Fellowship Ministries Angel Tree display, and begins her holiday shopping.

“I always choose a girl, because I have three brothers and no sisters, so I rarely get to buy gifts for a little girl,” the associate provost and graduate school dean said. “My husband goes with me, and we pick out their things pretty carefully.

“Most of us have plenty for Christmas. These are needy children, and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to share. We have so much, compared to these children.”

Shari Barnes agrees. That’s why, for the last 17 years, she has coordinated MC’s sponsorship of the Angel Tree program, and for the last 10, she has accepted gifts for residents of the Mustard Seed, a Christian community in Brandon for adults with developmental disabilities.

“We’re all so blessed, and it’s a great opportunity to give back to someone who truly needs it,” said Barnes, director of the Community Service Center at MC. “You cannot blame an Angel Tree child for the trouble their parents have gotten in. When a grandparent or a guardian has to raise that child, and they’re barely getting by anyway, it can be very difficult, especially during Christmas.

“I’ve worked with both of these charities for many years. They are legitimate, well-run organizations, and those participating in these programs know their contributions are going to the right place.”

MC’s involvement with Prison Fellowship Ministries dates back almost 20 years, when the Angel Tree sponsorship began. Margaret Cole, executive assistant to the vice president and executive director of the Alumni Association, coordinated the effort for three years before handing it off to Barnes.

Before and after MC’s Thanksgiving break, the first names, interests, and clothing and shoe sizes of 125 boys and girls whose parent or parents are incarcerated in Mississippi will be made available on construction paper “angels” tacked to a display board in the cafeteria in the B.C. Rogers Student Center.

Participants are invited to select an “angel” from the board, purchase some of the requested items, and return them to the MC Community Service Center in the B.C. Rogers center before Monday, Dec. 12.

An Angel Tree will also be set up in the foyer of the MC School of Law in downtown Jackson. Barnes said law school faculty and staff and budding barristers support about 40 children through the program each year.

While Prison Fellowship Ministries provide the names of the children, Barnes maintains personal contact with the families to make sure the information for each “angel” is accurate.

“I will call their guardians and get their clothing and shoe sizes and a list of things they like to play with,” she said. “The purpose isn’t to provide each child’s whole Christmas: Angel Tree suggests we provide one or two items from the list, but we usually do more than that.”

Norris said shopping for an “angel” couldn’t be easier.

“You have a parameter on how much to spend, which makes you look for good deals,” she said. “I like shopping where there’s a sale so that I can get more for my ‘angel.’

“My mother makes scarves and hats, so I always give my girl something she’s made. I try to match the outfit I buy to that. It’s a lot of fun.”

In addition to the donations of clothing and toys, this year, Barnes will include a Bible among each “angel’s” Christmas allotment.

The Community Service Center also supports approximately 42 “Seedsters” during the Christmas season. Participants select a man or a woman and fill a bag with items the Seedster has indicated he or she would like to have.

Blankets, towels, socks, warm-up suits, books, and an animated movie are usually on the list. Stuffed animals are especially prized. This year, the University has provided a Mississippi College T-shirt for each resident.

Unlike the Angel Tree donations, which are left unwrapped – guardians like to see what their children are receiving and participate in the gift-giving by preparing the presents themselves – Barnes wraps gifts to the Mustard Seed.

“The Seedsters have so much fun unwrapping their presents,” she said. “If you visit the Mustard Seed facility just once, you’ll know why I enjoy helping them. They’re such loving adults, and their faces light up when they see their gifts.”

Barnes said the participation rate of MC faculty, staff, and students for programs like the Angel Tree and Mustard Seed is impressive. Other groups also contributed this year: students from junior high and senior high schools throughout the state who participated in the Student Council Workshops at MC sponsored 54 “angels” through their respective schools.

Norris said helping others not only makes MC faculty, staff, and students feel good, but it’s also a vital part of the University’s mission.

“Providing service to others is part of MC’s culture,” she said. “The word ‘service’ is mentioned four times in our mission statement – twice more than ‘teaching’ or ‘Baptist.’ Service is a regular part of MC faculty, staff, and students’ lives.

“Giving to our community through programs like Angel Tree and Mustard Seed is a way of accomplishing our mission.”

For more information about the Angel Tree program or the Mustard Seed effort, email Barnes at

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