Jackson County corrections officers help spread Christmas joy in a setting unfamiliar with cheer

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It’s a Christmas surprise for dozens of children whose parents are spending the holiday season behind bars.

Corrections officers at the Jackson County Detention Center are trying to turn a tough situation into something special, by bringing in one of Santa’s helpers to spread Christmas cheer.

“Ho, ho, ho!” echoed through the jail’s visitors’ waiting room for several hours Wednesday afternoon.

It was a familiar sound in an unfamiliar place, belted out by a special guest sent on behalf of old St. Nick.

“I’m showing them the joy of Christmas that they may not be able to share because of the hardships in their life,” Santa’s helper said.

He handed out dozens of gifts, laughing and talking to countless children whose parents are incarcerated.

“You can see it in their eyes,” he said. “The first young man I talked to, he couldn`t believe he was getting that kind of gift. It was just wonderful. It was a wonderful feeling.”

The “young man” he referenced is Devin, a boy who celebrated his 10th birthday Wednesday and just wanted to spend it with his dad.

“First thing he says is, ‘Mom look at Santa! Mom, look at Santa!’” said Devin’s mom, Jennifer Baird.

She added, “He wanted to come here to see his dad, that`s the thing he wants – his dad out of jail.”

Those sentiments were shared by another mother and her 7-week-old baby boy, as they waited their turn to visit the child's father.

“It`s kind of sad,” said Angie Estrada, “because you can’t really have contact with that person. It`s just glass.”

It’s that sad situation that inspired corrections officers to lift their spirits with surprises – an internal holiday tradition made possible for the tenth year thanks to the Criminal Justice Department at Penn Valley Community College.

“[They are] pretty much surprised,” said Joe Piccinini, jail director. “That`s the last thing they expected to see at the jail, with Santa Claus handing out presents. You can just see their face light up. It`s really unexpected and they`re very happy to receive it.”

This year, students and staff donated and wrapped more than 100 gifts for kids who stop in.

“The kids are very innocent,” Piccinini said. “They`re trying to do the best they can, given the circumstances. So I think the folks working here really want to do what they can, for not only the people incarcerated, but for the kids of the people who are incarcerated.”

It’s thoughtful gesture the families appreciate, especially while times are tough.

“It was beautiful!” Estrada said. “I didn`t expect that. I just thought I came to visit!”

The jail is also continuing a second program this holiday season, similar to Angel Tree. It partnered with a local church called Midtown Baptist Temple to collect and deliver gifts to 40 children of female inmates so that they have presents to open on Christmas morning.