Charity jail

Elizabeth Smith gives a donation to Gene Birk, Brighter Christmas cofounder, as Ray MacDonald and Bob Otani watch from behind bars in 2018.

Community and business leaders will be locked up for the sake of families in need this holiday season when the Brighter Christmas Jail returns Dec. 3.

Gene Birk, one of the co-founders of Brighter Christmas, said the jail was created in 1985 as a fundraiser for the charity that gives low-income families a 25-pound basket of food and toys for each child up to age 13.

This year, Brighter Christmas will help about 560 families with nearly 1,500 children.

Brighter Christmas gears up for giving season

Birk will don his judge’s robe to assign bail — the total donation each jail participant will try to raise with the help of friends and associates and passers-by.

On Wednesday, he said he had spent the past few days arranging for inmates for the charity jail.

“We have people from our Lions Club, Rotary, Kiwanis, and then people in the public. That’s where the real money comes from,” Birk said.

The jail will be in front of the Tracy Fire Administration office, 835 N. Central Ave., from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 3. Participants will take shifts of half an hour to a couple of hours as they drum up their donations.

The 2018 pledge total was estimated at $8,000.

Lori Sparger, a Brighter Christmas board member, said that money pays for food and toys to supplement what the local charity receives at the Angel Tree in the West Valley Mall and in donation barrels around town.

“It is our primary fundraiser for the year that we rely on to gather funds necessary to continue the program,” Sparger said.

Usually about 30 people participate in the jail fundraiser. Birk said anyone who wants to join in can call 833-3309 and leave a message or send a note through the “Contact Us” page at There is no deadline to volunteer.

“It can be right up to the day of the jail,” Birk said. “They can just show up.”

Sparger hopes to see some new faces behind bars this year.

“There’s a lot of new businesses in town, people we may not have reached yet or people that don’t know — even though it’s been here for so many years, there’s so many people that don’t know what Brighter Christmas is,” she said.

Carly Abercrombie nibbled a chocolate doughnut as she gazed through the bars at the rain falling outside her cell. A hefty $3,500 bail kept he…

Carly Abercrombie, daughter of Brighter Christmas program director Steve Abercrombie, has been a top fundraiser for 12 years and will return again this year. She was 6 months old the first time she went behind bars for Brighter Christmas.

“She’s the big draw,” Birk said. “She’s a good sport and she loves it — she’s out there banging on doors right now, I guarantee it.”

Birk said people who want to donate can drop off a check or cash at the jail.

Contact the Tracy Press at or 835-3030.

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