Former inmate returns the favor to group that gives Christmas gifts to kids with incarcerated parents

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CHICAGO — This time of year has always been a reflective one for Luis Centeno, who found the joy of giving in his darkest hour. 

“I grew up in Little Village. I wasn’t born well off. Struggled like a lot of kids in inner cities with low income families,” Centeno said. “I made a lot of bad choices and paid severely for it.” 

One month before Christmas in 2001, he was sentenced to 10 years on drug charges. 

“This time of year brings back a lot of memories,” Centeno said. “Those years were so stressful and painful, so all those memories just come back.”

There was one light in all this: Angel Tree, a prison fellowship program that works to get a gift under the tree for every one of the 2.7 million children with a mom or dad in jail. 

They deliver that special gift to the child’s home along with a handwritten note from their parent to let them know they are not forgotten on Christmas. 

“All the way until my release date, I was blessed to be able to provide those presents to my kids all thanks to the Angel Tree program,” Centeno recalls. “I said to myself right before coming home that I have to be able to give back somehow.”

Now 19 years later, Centeno has transitioned from bars to barbells as the owner of two successful Chicago gyms

He’s also making good on that promise to give back, holding holiday fundraisers for Angel Tree for four years in a row and raising thousands of dollars in the process. 

“They do so much for the kids. It just feels good to give back. It makes me feel good,” Centeno said.

Every December, he said he makes sure to put a Christmas tree on the gym floor as a reminder of the gift of giving he learned so many years back. 

“I realized it’s not about getting because you end up getting tenfold when you give; I learned you end up getting what you need, which is the best part of it,” Centeno said.

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