FRESNO, Calif. — Working with incarcerated youth is personal for Ron Climer.

The 69-year-old first found himself behind bars at age 8 for burglary. His childhood was spent in and out of the Fresno County Juvenile Justice Campus detention facility, then in and out of Fresno County Jail, until his life changed dramatically for the better at age 24.

Since then, he’s been a volunteer at the Fresno County juvenile hall. He’s the senior chaplain there and has organized annual Christmas parties for incarcerated youth for the past 44 years. Another 11 parties are planned for the first week of December, run by dozens of volunteers and funded by 16 Southern Baptist churches via Climer’s nonprofit, Changing Lives Resource Center in Clovis, Calif.

There are around 240 children, age 12 to 18, now in the juvenile hall, says Mike Elliott, director of the detention facility.

During the parties, the youth play games, eat food cooked by volunteers, and receive donated gifts, toiletries and socks. Climer says for many, the gifts are the first they’ve ever received. The teens also have the option of learning about the biblical meaning of Christmas. That part is especially important to Climer, who left behind a life of crime as a young man by clinging to a new-found faith.

MERCY FOR THE ASKING

Climer started going to church in his early 20s after listening to a conversation between two men he knew.

One of the men, named Leroy, was telling another, named Larry, about how his Christian faith led him to turn himself into authorities for committing 27 felonies because he wanted to “get right with God” and the people he hurt.

“He said, ‘Larry, God loves you just like you are,'” Climer recalls. “He said, ‘You don’t have to change anything. Just open up your heart and let Christ come in. He’ll change you, whatever needs to be changed.’

“I thought, ‘If God could love Leroy and he could love Larry, then maybe, if there really is a God, he could love, me, too.”

Climer was battling heroin addiction at the time. He almost decided to give up that fight, but in one of his darkest moments, he opened up a Bible instead.

“For a while I sat there and thought about the people I met in church and how they were filled with peace and joy and happiness, and Leroy, how he was. And I thought, ‘God, if this is what you’ve got for me and you’re going to give that kind of peace to those people, and I’m full of this kind of rage, take me right now.'”

AVOIDS BACKSLIDING

Climer still decided he wanted to overdose on all the drugs he could find the next day. Then he heard a voice: “Put your faith in me and not in the needle and I’ll do it for you.” Climer isn’t sure if that voice was audible or just in his head, but it doesn’t matter.

“I chose to believe it was God,” Climber said. “So I did what the Scripture said, I invited him to come into my life, and my life has never been the same since.”

Climer hopes his work helps incarcerated youth become better citizens for society and the “kingdom” of God.

“I love it as much today as I did 44 years ago. It really brings to life what Jesus said, that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”