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‘We enjoy putting a smile on their faces’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On the surface it had all the hallmarks of a Christmas party: vibrant cards, children gleefully unwrapping gifts and, of course, Santa Claus.

The only thing missing for the dozens of families gathered at a South Valley community center Saturday afternoon was the loved one sitting behind bars.

“We’re delighted that you have come, and to bring your family, to serve your loved ones who are in custody during this time of year,” Metropolitan Detention Center Chaplain Quinton Fletcher said to those in the festive room, a Santa hat snug atop his head.

The jail held its 31st annual holiday party at the South Valley Multi-Purpose Center, where families brought the children of Bernalillo County jail inmates to receive gifts, decorate cards and sit on Santa’s lap.

“We enjoy putting a smile on their faces. It gives us a chance to bond with their families and let them know we’re here for them,” Fletcher said. “I know this time of year can bring a lot of difficulties for a lot of people, but we see the good that comes from it.”

He said they collected more than 1,500 gifts this year, along with cash donations, and anticipated serving up to 300 families throughout the day.

Fletcher said anyone can donate gifts at the jail, and they use county trucks to pick up many gifts donated by various churches in the area, while he and MDC staff use the cash donations to buy additional gifts around town.

The room was adorned from front to back with holiday decorations, and Christmas music played loudly, broken up by laughter as kids showed off their gifts to one another.

Santa and Mrs. Claus sat on two thrones and children waited patiently to tell him what they wanted for Christmas.

Martha Sanchez said the holidays are hard on her two great-grandsons. She said their father has been behind bars for two years now and there is often no extra money for gifts or toys.

“Sometimes, you don’t even have money for the damn Scotch tape,” Sanchez said, calling the holiday party a wonderful event. “These kids don’t see this all the time – their eyes just lit up.”

She said the children, ages 15 and 7, got several gifts, including Legos, a soccer ball and the board game Life.

“I make them play games with me,” she said, her face brightening. “I was a single parent, so I know what it’s like – the hardships – but we get through.”

As the party wore on, a plastic tub filled with ornate cards, cell block and inmate numbers scribbled on the envelopes in children’s handwriting, and, on the inside, such messages as “I love you daddy” and “merry Christmas mommy.”