Angel Tree

More Than Legos

By Prison Fellowship | Posted July 22, 2015

When he was 10 months old, Hayden was living with his mom, a meth addict, in a drug house. Child Protective Services found him and took him away. Hayden’s father was in prison at the time. In fact he’d been in and out of prison for nine years. So Donna, Hayden’s grandmother, gained permanent custody of him when he was 2 years old.

“Hayden has abandonment issues,” Donna says. “He sees a psychiatrist once a week and a family support specialist takes him to the park.”

Hayden had a blast at the Angel Tree Christmas party!

Hayden had a blast at the Angel Tree Christmas party!

Donna worked hard so Hayden could grow up in a stable home. But the little boy’s life suffered a severe blow when his dad was taken back to prison four years ago.

“When his daddy was taken away in a squad car, Hayden stood by the front door and cried for half an hour,” Donna says. She couldn’t get him away from the front door. “He was devastated. It broke my heart.”

Hope Appears

What can soothe the heart of a 5-year-old boy who watched his father get taken away to prison?

Prison Fellowship‘s Angel Tree program provided a start. It has been a lifeline for Hayden and Donna.

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Remembering Prisoners—and Their Children

By Jim Liske | Posted July 20, 2015

Liske_154In a major criminal justice reform speech this week, President Obama brought attention to the steep rise in America’s prison population over the last few decades—and its collateral consequences for prisoners’ children.

“Around one million fathers are behind bars,” the president said. “Around one in nine African-American kids has a parent in prison. What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to our children? Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could … be more actively involved in their children’s lives …”

As he pointed out, incarceration is a weighty problem with serious consequences, and we will need to address it in the public square and in every branch of government for a long time to come. But there’s also some really good news right now. This summer, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated parents are signing their children up to receive a Christmas gift and the Gospel through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Christmas program.

These children won’t just receive a wrapped present—with help from thousands of volunteers, they’ll get a moment of much-needed connection with an absent parent and the message of the Heavenly Father’s love for them. For many, it’s life-changing.

Will you help? As parents sign their children up for Angel Tree, we’re recruiting thousands of churches and organization from every state to embody God’s love for prisoners and their families. To learn more and sign up, visit angeltree.org or call 1-800-55-ANGEL

Seeing the Face of God in Prisoners

By Steve Rempe | Posted July 16, 2015

It’s altogether too easy for those of us with little or no connection to prison to dismiss and ignore the men and women behind bars.  Content to live our own lives, we are quick to conclude that the incarcerated “got what they had coming to them,” and to write them off as inconsequential.

For author Caryn Rivadeneira, those perceptions began to change when she visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.  Before her visit, Rivadeneira had opposed the death penalty, but was content to take a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to incarceration.  Having the chance to interact with the men in Angola changed that.

“Seeing prison life firsthand and befriending inmates forced me to realize how a heart that grieves at capital punishment ought also to grieve for lives spent forgotten behind bars, too,” Rivadeneira says in an article for the “her.meneutics” blog on the Christianity Today website.  “My time with the men locked up in Louisiana deepened my understanding of many things. Grace, redemption, certainly. But the word that bubbles up most is—of all things—humanity. Specifically, the way each of our humanity reflects God, the face of our Savior.”

By talking with several prisoners, Rivadeneira was reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew, telling them that when they visited those in prison, they were visiting Him.

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‘Father-Daughter Dance’

By Steve Rempe | Posted June 24, 2015

In 2013, Angela Patton, director of a program named Camp Diva, appeared in a popular TED talk, discussing a father-daughter dance her organization had helped to set up for 16 prisoners and 18 girls in the city jail in Richmond, Virginia.  The story and the images from inside the jail were simple and sweet, yet moving and profound.  Girls were reunited with fathers some had barely known before, and dads were able to reassess their lives and look to the future.  “I just gotta break this cycle I’m in,” one of the fathers says in a Washington Post article in a moment of personal reflection following the dance.  “I’m just tired of it.”

The story was picked up by a number of news outlets, including the aforementioned Washington Post article, as well as a BreakPoint commentary by Eric Metaxas, and two separate posts to this blog (here and here).

Christian recording artist J. J. Heller recently became aware of the story, and was moved to write a song about the dance with her husband, Dave.

Reconciling and restoring families like the ones at the Richmond City Jail is a major part of Prison Fellowship’s ministry.  Programs like Angel Tree seek to reconnect men and women behind bars to their children, providing gifts for their kids at Christmas, camping opportunities in the summer, and mentoring services year round.  And in-prison reentry programs help to equip those preparing to leave prison to be good parents to their sons and daughters.

To find out how you can be a part of reuniting families, please visit our “Get Involved” page.

Elaina Goes to Summer Camp

By Prison Fellowship | Posted June 2, 2015
Angel Tree campers

Every summer, Angel Tree children spend a week at summer camp, learning about God’s love for them and making friends with others who understand what they’re going through.

Elaina has never forgotten the day that her dad was taken away from her. Her mom told her that he was away on business.

When she learned that he was actually in prison, Elaina says, “Me and my sisters were really sad.”

She wasn’t mad at her mom for lying to her. But she missed her dad so much that she thought her heart would break. She couldn’t imagine life without him. And yet she would be without him—for three long years.

Without Her Dad

The first Christmas was especially hard. Elaina longed to have her dad at home. It just wasn’t the same without him.

And then something wonderful happened. Elaina and her sisters were invited to an Angel Tree party at a nearby church.

You should have seen them. When they got home and opened the gifts their dad had picked out for them, they were so surprised. Elaina couldn’t believe her eyes as she tore open the package marked, “To: Elaina, From: Daddy.” Inside she found silly bands, a doll, and some beautiful new clothes.

But that was only the beginning.

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From Camper to Mentor

By Prison Fellowship | Posted May 14, 2015

For a long time, Trisha thought she was alone and that no one could understand what she was going through.

As a young girl, Trisha’s father would lock her and her four siblings out of the house for extended periods. He was involved with drugs; strangers filed in and out of their house constantly. She served as default caregiver for the younger children, and her brother searched the neighborhood to steal food so they could eat.

When Trisha was in the third grade she and her siblings were taken away from their dad because he was making drugs in their basement. His first of two jail sentences left them homeless. Then, while staying in a shelter, they learned that their brother had gotten blood cancer from exposure to the chemicals their dad had used to make drugs. From this point, the five children bounced from relative to relative. First they lived with their aunt, then with their grandmother, and then with their grandfather. The children went back and forth until finally the court decided they had to stay in one place—back with their grandmother.

Trisha’s childhood was a dark and lonely time. She watched her abusive father put a gun to her mom’s head. Her brother is thankfully cancer-free today, but he still wrestles with drug abuse and violence, the issues that plagued their father.

“It’s hard to watch,” she says.

Angel Tree Steps In

Trisha remembers the broken deams and the sadness. She remembers the Christmas they didn’t receive any gifts. Returning to school after Christmas break she had a writing assignment from her teacher: Write about what you got for Christmas. Trisha had nothing to write.

But something changed that first Christmas Trisha and her brother and sisters took part in Angel Tree. She was 9 years old, living in her grandma’s apartment, when Angel Tree volunteers arrived, arms stacked high with gifts. Trisha still remembers a baby doll as her favorite.

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A Home for Davion

By Steve Rempe | Posted April 14, 2015

Long-time visitors to this blog may remember the story of Davion Only.  In 2013, the then-15-year-old Davion stepped in front of a church in Florida and asked if someone would adopt him.

Davion_350px

Davion and Connie. (Reprinted with permission of The Tampa Bay Times. All Rights Reserved.)

Davion was born in prison to a mother he never knew.  He entered into the foster care system at a very young age, and bounced from family to family, hoping to eventually find a permanent home.  By the time he reached his teenaged years, Davion decided to find out what he could about his birth mother.  An Internet search revealed a mugshot of his mom—and the sad news of her passing weeks earlier.

Instead of becoming despondent over the loss of the mother he never knew, Davion became committed to finding a family that he could truly call his own.  Wearing the only suit he owned, and with a Bible provided by the boys’ home where he was living, Davion addressed about 300 parishoners at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Naples, Florida, and asked if someone would be willing to adopt him.

“My name is Davion,” he said, “and I’ve been in foster care since I was born. … I know God hasn’t given up on me, so I’m not going to give up, either.”

Thanks to the Internet, Davion’s plea became national news.  Over 10,000 people contacted the foster family agency assigned to Davion, inquiring about possible adoption.  He was interviewed by Barbara Walters on national television.  A pastor in Ohio agreed to adopt Davion, and he moved north to begin a new life with the minister and his family.  However, a physical altercation with one of his new siblings caused his new family to reconsider adoption.  He returned to Florida, once again alone and without a family.

But now, Davion has finally found the family he has been seeking.  And, as it turns out, he didn’t have to go very far.

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Why It Matters

By Jim Liske | Posted March 23, 2015

Liske_154Many friends like you help us with Angel Tree year after year, whether it’s by praying, giving financially, wrapping a gift, or working at a Christmas party. This past Christmas, you helped us match 330,663 children with volunteers who delivered gifts, the Gospel, and personal messages from moms and dads behind bars.

But have you ever wondered whether Angel Tree truly matters? Does its impact continue once the wrapping paper has been thrown away, or the gift is worn out and forgotten?

Here’s just one story from an Angel Tree church coordinator, whose testimony reminds us why Angel Tree matters throughout the year, and often for all eternity:

We have an [Angel Tree] family, who had their inmate step-father and father die in prison last year. We, as a church, have continued to walk alongside the mother, Jennifer, and her kids. She has been attending our church for a few years and was able to lead her inmate husband to the Lord before he passed away. This year is the first time she has been able to participate with the program and she made deliveries. She was so elated to help and so blessed to share with other families. She wants to do it again next year.

Angel Tree supporters didn’t just give Jennifer’s children a gift at Christmas; they helped connect Jennifer and her family with a caring church community that walks beside them all year long, in joy and pain, and helps draw them closer to the God who is restoring their lives. What gift could matter more?

Learn more about the continuing impact of Angel Tree at www.angeltree.org.

A Purple Bible

By Denise Gatlin | Posted February 20, 2015
Denise and her grandson  Zach shop year-round for Angel Tree supplies.

Denise and her grandson Zach shop year-round for Angel Tree supplies.

I have been an Angel Tree church coordinator for many years, but 2014 has to have been the best ministry year yet.  God blessed our ministry in so many ways throughout the year and in a great way during our Angel Tree party. Our church volunteers purchased gifts for over 50 children, sent cards to their parents in prison, and provided support for their caregivers. Some of these caregivers are single moms, grandparents, and even great-grandparents who have limited resources.

I had two young moms, both unchurched and unemployed, who helped me organize and wrap the Angel Tree gifts.  One of their ex-husbands is in prison, but he did not sign his kids up for Angel Tree. Our church made sure we served his kids anyway.  While these two moms were assisting me with Angel Tree, God reached out and touched these families. Now they are attending Sunday school, church, and our AWANA program.  Also, they both found jobs and started working the first week of January.

Out of the 50 children we gave gifts to this past Christmas, there was one little girl’s story I will never forget. She told her mom that she wanted a purple Bible, but she didn’t think it would be possible to find one. I purchase Bibles throughout the year, so I went to my shelf and sure enough I had a purple Bible!  I received a note from the little girl’s mom after Christmas thanking me for making her child’s Christmas so special.  She will never forget that God answered her request for a purple Bible.

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A New Beginning for Wayne

By Prison Fellowship | Posted February 9, 2015
OSL

Prison Fellowship evangelism events are now reaching prisoners in every state.

Wayne spent 12 years in prison, but if you ask him about it, he’ll say, “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

You see, it was in prison that Wayne met Jesus. He was in prison when he turned his life—and the lives of his family—around.

“I remember the first year I signed my boys up for Angel Tree,” Wayne says. “When I called home that day—my eyes still tear up when I think about it—there was excitement in my wife’s voice.”

“Angel Tree brought Christmas back into my boys’ lives,” Wayne remembers.

As they told him how thrilled and thankful they were for the gifts that had been given in his name, he couldn’t help thinking, “There really is a God, and He does care.”

The walls that a life of crime and its consequences had built around Wayne’s heart were beginning to tumble down.

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