Angel Tree

Where Restoration Starts

By Jim Liske | Posted October 20, 2014

Liske_154When Israel was almost overcome by surrounding nations, Gideon and his 300 men encircled the enemy camp with torches hidden inside of earthenware jars. On a signal, they broke their jars, began to yell, and let their torches shine forth. The enemy army, convinced they were about to be attacked by a superior force, fled in confusion (Judges 7).

In a similar way, the restoration of hurting communities starts with brokenness. When He wants to bring healing, God does a surprising thing: He calls broken people to come help. In particular, we’ve discovered that He calls prisoners and ex-prisoners, who have experienced firsthand the pain of addiction, violence, and futile thinking, to come to the rescue of those still trapped in the same cycle. As those broken people show up, light shines forth, and the powers of darkness flee!

Across the country, Prison Fellowship Ministries offers seminary-level Christian leadership training and faith-based reentry opportunities to men and women behind bars, so that when they are released from prison, they are ready to shine the light of Christ in their communities and rout the Enemy. Hundreds are in training right now to continue the work of restoration in their neighborhoods!

God uses broken people like me and you, too. Have you considered volunteering to work with prisoners, families, or legislators, but wondered whether you were qualified enough? Right now, we need volunteer leaders whom God is calling to lead ministry in their states. We need advocates who will call their legislators to speak up for restorative justice. We need churches who will seek out children and families on the margins of life. Don’t let fear hold you back—that’s where the light and love of Christ can come pouring through. That’s where restoration starts.

Building Connections

By Rebekah L. Stratton | Posted October 15, 2014

Dr. Jeffrey Russell loves helping others.

Every Friday he drives into Tulsa, Oklahoma, to serve dinner and teach a class in Christian doctrine to the homeless and incarcerated.

Russell has been a chiropractor in nearby Sand Springs since 1995, and he sees his profession as another way to help people. After a chiropractor helped him heal from a high school wrestling injury, Russell decided he wanted to do the same for others.

This past winter, Russell connected with another group of people who needed his help: the 2.7 million children in America with an incarcerated parent. These children often feel confused and alone because of their parents’ mistakes. They are five times more likely to live in poverty than other children, and they’re also at high risk for emotional and behavioral problems, such as depression and drug use.

Angel Tree connects children with their incarcerated parents.

Angel Tree connects children with their incarcerated parents.

Last Christmas, Russell had the opportunity to share with some of these kids that their futures aren’t set in stone by their parents’ choices. They can thrive in life despite their situations because their Heavenly Father walks beside them.

An Invitation to Help

For Russell, the door to this ministry opened in November 2013 when he started talking with a patient—the husband of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Program Specialist Mary Hamelin.

Mary and her husband shared with Russell what the Angel Tree program is all about: It’s a national outreach by local church congregations who deliver the Gospel message and Christmas gifts to children in the name of their incarcerated parents.

Russell wanted to help. He presented the ministry to Pastor Steve Bookout at his church, Prattwood Assembly of God in Sand Springs. Russell explained the outreach would be an immediate blessing to the children and would also connect Prattwood Assembly with parents and grandparents for fellowship and a way to witness.

Bookout loved the idea of getting his congregation involved in Angel Tree. With Christmas just around the corner, time would be a challenge.

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A Family Reunited

By Prison Fellowship | Posted October 8, 2014

As the steel doors slammed shut and a stone-faced officer led her husband away, Rocio hurt as only a wife and a mother can.

“We had never been separated, and I was a stay-at-home mom,” she recalls. “I was suddenly left alone and looking for work.”

“At the time, our three kids were young. I told them that their dad had a new job as a cook at the prison,” Rocio says.

That was true, but it was little comfort.

Angel Tree children receive gifts on behalf of their incarcerated parents at Christmastime.

Angel Tree children receive gifts on behalf of their incarcerated parents at Christmastime.

Bobby and Vivian, the two youngest, ached for their daddy to tuck them into bed. For Vianca, the oldest, there was the terrible burden of shame. Rocio felt it too. It was like she and her children were the ones doing time.

She had just two things going for her: a church that cared and the Angel Tree program.

A Broken Heart Cries Out

As Christmas got closer, the pressure mounted. The children had never had a Christmas without their father.

Now they might not have Christmas at all. Rocio had no money to buy presents. Most days, it was all she could do to put food on table.

From a broken heart, she cried out to God. What happened next was a genuine Christmas miracle.

Rocio remembers it like it was yesterday. “One day there was a knock on our door,” she says. When she answered, a volunteer from a local church told her that he had been sent on behalf of her husband and Angel Tree. “He told me he had gifts for our kids from their daddy,” Rocio recalls.

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Contributing from Behind Bars

By Rebekah L. Stratton | Posted October 2, 2014
Times photo/JACLYN RANDALL Pictured, left to right: top row - CVSP Warden A.M. Gonzales; Blythe T.A.S.K. co-founders Gail Townsend and Angela Searles; Bags of Love representative Shirley Foster; CVSP Community Resource Manager Kenny Kalian; Blythe Travel Baseball representative Richard Johnson; and CVSP AA Self-Help Sponsor Erin Barnes; bottom row – A.A. Secretary Jason Rivera, A.A. Chairman Marco Galvan, A.A. Treasurer Donyel Brown, former A.A. Secretary Manuel Dunn, and A.A. Chairman Thomas Owen, all from CVSP’s “C” yard.

Palo Verde Valley Times/JACLYN RANDALL Pictured, left to right: top row – CVSP Warden A.M. Gonzales; Blythe T.A.S.K. co-founders Gail Townsend and Angela Searles; Bags of Love representative Shirley Foster; CVSP Community Resource Manager Kenny Kalian; Blythe Travel Baseball representative Richard Johnson; and CVSP AA Self-Help Sponsor Erin Barnes; bottom row – A.A. Secretary Jason Rivera, A.A. Chairman Marco Galvan, A.A. Treasurer Donyel Brown, former A.A. Secretary Manuel Dunn, and A.A. Chairman Thomas Owen, all from CVSP’s “C” yard.

You don’t often hear stories in the news about prisoners ‘giving back’ to society from behind prison walls, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening all around the country.

Take Marco for example. He and his fellow Alcoholics Anonymous participants at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in California are contributing to meaningful causes while incarcerated.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to do this,” says Marco Galvan, prisoner and AA chairman. “Doing this is our way to make amends and give back.”

This group of prisoners pictured above held a fundraiser, selling food to other prisoners at Chuckawalla. With the funds they raised, they chose to help three local organizations: Blythe Travel Baseball, Blythe T.A.S.K. (Team of Advocates for Special-Needs Kids), and Bags of Love, which provides hygiene products and other necessities for children who are removed from their homes.

Palo Verde Valley Times reports that the prisoners chose these three local organizations to receive the money because the groups “helped the youth in a way that may discourage them from ending up in the same place they reside – prison.”

Two of the prisoners who participated in the fundraiser are currently studying in Prison Fellowship’s in-prison seminary-training program. These students, Manuel Dunn and Thomas Owen, and their fellow prisoners are looking past their current personal situations to how they can help the next generation in the outside community.

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Family Blessings at Christmas

By Prison Fellowship | Posted September 18, 2014

God used Angel Tree supporters to change a family’s future.

Preschoolers AJ and Butchie witnessed a harrowing scene in the courtroom; if it had ended there, these two little boys would have faced a future without hope or promise. But Angel Tree supporters helped rescue them and turn their hearts to their parents.

AJ and Butchie watched in horror that day as both of their parents were brought into a courtroom on drug charges. Catching sight of their shackled parents, the children screamed and flailed to get to them.

Their father, Butch, listened to their heartrending cries of “Daddy, Daddy” — and helplessly burst into tears.

Their mom was released, but Butch was given a seven-year prison sentence.

He attended every Christian program he could, including Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative — an intensive course of study and reentry preparation centered on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Butch’s life was transforming, but his wife, Gwenni, struggled with her own drug addiction. And taking care of AJ and Butchie alone on the outside was demanding.

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Lifting Up the Sons of Prisoners

By Rebekah L. Stratton | Posted September 9, 2014

Every Christmas, Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program delivers the Gospel message and gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. But Angel Tree’s reach extends much farther than Christmastime. Prisoners’ children are experiencing God’s love all year long through Angel Tree summer camps, mentoring relationships, and an exciting annual event called the Angel Tree Football Clinic at Stanford.

Angel Tree Football Clinic participants run drills.

Angel Tree Football Clinic participants run drills.

Aug. 24 marked the eighth year that the Angel Tree Football Clinic has brought together high-caliber, Christian former college and professional football players and 7- to 13-year-old boys who have an incarcerated parent or face other significant risk factors. This year, about 320 boys from California enjoyed a free day of encouragement, physical engagement, and character development with 35 volunteer coaches who served as their positive male role models.

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A Day of Hope for Prisoners and Their Children

By Rebekah L. Stratton | Posted August 29, 2014
As their dads came out of the building, their children ran and jumped on them with excitement.

As their dads emerged from the building, the children ran to jump on them for a big hug. (Photo by Edward Weston)

If you imagine away the barbed-wire fence, it feels just like a family picnic on a sprawling green lawn underneath the late-morning sunshine. But for the parents and children in attendance, this is much more than a picnic; this is the day hope is restored.

On Aug. 16, nearly 30 boys and girls huddled around the entrance of Avery Mitchell Correctional Facility in the beautiful mountains of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to spend a day with someone they’d been missing lately: their incarcerated fathers. Some of these kids hadn’t seen their dads in several years; a few had never met their dads before. But, just the same, every child couldn’t wait to jump into their father’s arms on the prison’s front yard.

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Angel Wink

By Melissa Haase | Posted August 25, 2014
The Haase family

The Haase family

I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in an average family. Every year at Christmas, we sponsored a child through the Angel Tree® program. I loved the tradition and felt something special when we would drop off the packages in time for a prisoner’s child to celebrate Christmas.

As I grew older, I wasn’t as dedicated or consistent about picking a special tag from an Angel Tree. Sometimes it was hard to find a nearby location running the program. However, once I became a mom, I truly felt the need to spread the love and generosity so that my son, Jackson, would witness how our family could help other families.

Early during the Advent season in 2013, I was excited to pick an Angel Tree tag from the tree at our church. I wanted to be one of the first families to pick a tag since the year before we were late and all the tags had been taken.

This year, Jackson was 3 – old enough to help me pick out the tag and presents, beginning a whole new tradition for the two of us. Also, this year I had a special reason of my own to help out a child.

Our family was in need of finding joy this Christmas. We were missing our baby boy, Nicholas, who was stillborn a few months earlier. Nicholas was survived by his twin sister, but even with the delightful and joyful noises of a new baby at Christmastime, we knew our own little angel couldn’t be with us.

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Darryl Strawberry Finds a Savior

By John Stonestreet | Posted August 11, 2014

The following story originally aired as a BreakPoint commentary on August 7.

In 1980, the New York Mets selected an 18-year-old baseball phenom, Darryl Strawberry, with the first pick in the Major League draft.

"A worn-out baseball" by Schyler at English Wikipedia - Own work by the original uploader. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_worn-out_baseball.JPG#mediaviewer/File:A_worn-out_baseball.JPG

“A worn-out baseball” by Schyler at English Wikipedia

Being a Mets fan in the 1970’s was tough—just ask my BreakPoint colleagues Eric Metaxas and Roberto Rivera. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that many saw the outfielder from Crenshaw High School in LA as a potential savior for the moribund franchise. And he delivered.

Strawberry played in eight consecutive All-Star games, seven of them while playing for the Mets. And in 1986, he helped the Mets win the World Series, hitting a moonshot in the seventh and deciding game that put the game out of reach.

But while Strawberry delivered on the field, his life off the field amply demonstrated that the so-called “savior” was desperately in need of, well, a real Savior. And, God be praised, he found Him.

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Passing the Gift Along

By Prison Fellowship | Posted August 11, 2014
Michelle and her daughter.

Michelle and her daughter, Victoria

No one has to tell Michelle what prison can do to a family; she’s lived it. Her mom went to prison when Michelle was 15 years old.

But Michelle also knows that broken families and shattered dreams can be restored – like hers were through Angel Tree.

Lonely Christmas, Shattered Dreams

She’d already spent one lonely Christmas without her mother, and another was just around the corner.

Presents were out of the question, and Michelle was worried. She was the oldest. Her brother and sisters were counting on her. With both mom and dad out of the picture, she’d become the parent in the family.

It was a heavy burden for a teenager to bear.

Sometimes she’d lie awake at night and think about what might have been. Michelle had dreamed of going to college. Now, in her own words, she was “a seventh grade dropout.”

But God had not forgotten Michelle or her brothers and sisters, and neither had their mother. She was far away in prison, but her children were never far from her thoughts.

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