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Volunteers tucked a special note inside each package as they wrapped toy cars, stuffed polar bears and games in colorful Christmas paper in a Roseville warehouse.

"Merry Xmas," a 34-year-old woman wrote to her 17-year-old stepson: "I didn't give you life, but life gave me you. I'm so grateful."

Hundreds of children across the U.S. with incarcerated parents in Minnesota and North Dakota prisons will get a note and toy from their parent thanks to a program called Toy Lift. For 40 years, the Salvation Army's Northern Division, which is headquartered in Roseville, has organized the program, not just helping parents give a gift but stay connected to their children as they serve time.

"It's just really heartwarming," said Jeanine Kersey-Russell, the chaplain at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck, the state's largest prison. "It's that spirit of giving — it's not about buying a bunch of stuff; it's about having their child know that they're thinking about them on Christmas even if they can't be with them. It's pretty touching."

After cancelling the program last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Salvation Army resumed it this year at five North Dakota prisons, sending more than 300 presents in November to children across the U.S. Minnesota prisons didn't participate due to COVID.

"We're trying to restore a life. We understand they've done something, but we want them to know someone cares about them," said Charles Berry Sr., the correctional services director for the Salvation Army Northern Division. "It's an excellent way for them to have some responsibility or connection with their children."

Planning for the program kicks off each May, and inmates apply to participate. The prisons vet them to make sure there's no court order prohibiting contact with their child or children. Then on a fall day, Salvation Army chaplains and volunteers arrive with bins of gifts, displayed on a table decorated in Christmas wrapping. Inmates whose applications were accepted select one toy for each of their children or stepchildren and write out a note.

"The look on the guys' face, the joy of something that feels pretty close to normal: to be able to come in and shop for a gift," Kersey-Russell said. "Justice is getting what you deserve, but grace is maybe what you don't deserve ... the grace of being able to give gifts to their children."

Volunteers wrap and ship the gifts. In 2019, the Salvation Army's Northern Division sent nearly 2,000 gifts to kids from parents imprisoned in Minnesota and North Dakota. The program usually costs the Salvation Army about $50,000, funded in part by donations, but costs are lower this year due to the program being scaled back in the pandemic.

"Most of them in prison think no one cares about them," said Berry, a former youth pastor. "Yes, the child benefits from it, but the people incarcerated also benefit."

One man peered into Kersey-Russell's office each day for a month to confirm she got his application, anxiously checking in on the next steps.

"'This is really, really important to me that my kids know I love them,'" she said he told her. "I just think that that's really important to maintain those connections if they are ever to heal for what brought them here."

One man had a strained relationship with his daughter and told Berry the annual program was one way to help restore their relationship so they could reconnect when he was released. Another man, locked up for 30 years after just having a newborn, sent a gift to his child every year for 18 years, until they aged out of the Toy Lift program.

Another man this year picked out a Christmas card to go with his gifts and wrote to his kids, age 13, 12 and 10: "Merry Christmas," signing it: "Love you, daddy."

"They're sad to read," said Nancy Tomhave, 81, of St. Paul, who's volunteered with the Salvation Army and other organizations since her husband died 18 years ago. "I just love volunteering instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. I love the people and what we're doing."

Like food shelves across Minnesota, the Salvation Army is seeing a growing need for services during the pandemic. The Twin Cities nonprofit also runs a separate toy shop to provide Christmas gifts to 7,000 local families in need this year — more than double the number of people as last year.

The organization is still in need of toys and volunteers to distribute the toys in a drive-through pick up in mid-December. To volunteer or donate, go to During a tough time for so many families, the toy programs are sending thousands of kids some cheer and something special this season.

"It just feels hopeful," said Brian Molohon, executive development director for the nonprofit. "If there was ever a hopeful place, this is probably it."