What makes people so passionate about helping prisoner's children? How are they making a difference? A peek into the life of a volunteer from Texas provides some answers.
Stephanie Byrd, 35, of Ft. Worth, Texas, first got involved in Angel Tree® when she was a high school senior. A couple of Christian teachers in her public school sponsored an Angel Tree program, which provides Christmas gifts to local prisoners' children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. Stephanie went shopping for gifts with her mom, then she and some classmates helped deliver gifts to the families.
Stephanie remembers one house they visited, where a grandmother took care of several children. "It was a cold day," says Stephanie, "and when the grandmother invited us in, we could feel the cold air coming in through the cracks in the walls."
That experience "got me hooked" on Angel Tree, Stephanie says—though college, graduate school, and marriage prevented her from participating again until about nine years ago. She and her husband, Brian—a family practice physician—attended a conference featuring Chuck Colson, former aide to President Nixon and the founder of Prison Fellowship®.
"Then I remembered my time with Angel Tree," says Stephanie, and she sought out the Prison Fellowship staff in Ft. Worth.
COVERING 'UNASSIGNED' ANGELS
Angel Tree is a Prison Fellowship program that serves incarcerated parents by giving them a pathway to restore and strengthen relationships with their children and families. Every Christmas, Angel Tree mobilizes local churches and organizations to minister to hundreds of thousands of children by delivering a gift, the Gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their mom or dad behind bars. In addition, many of our partner churches meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of prisoners’ families through year-round ministry such as summer camps and mentoring.
Angel Tree relies on local churches to purchase and deliver gifts to the children—which are always presented as being from Mom or Dad in prison, who signed their kids up for the program. But sometimes not enough churches participate to cover all the kids in a particular area. So Stephanie and her husband started taking on the many "unassigned kids" each year—which sometimes came close to 800 children in the greater Ft. Worth area, ranging in age from infants to teenagers.
That first year "we called up everyone we knew, even friends from out of town," she explains. "We even got some more churches signed up." Now Stephanie oversees all the volunteers and churches involved with Angel Tree in Ft. Worth and the surrounding county, which reach out to more than 2,000 prisoners' children every year.
SHIFTING FOCUS ON GIVING
Stephanie, a stay-at-home mom of three (now ages 4, 7, and 9), has also made Angel Tree a "family affair. The kids really get into it, too,"—buying, wrapping, and delivering gifts. "We take a lot of family trips to Wal-Mart!"
Having her own kids involved in serving prisoners' children "helps take the focus off of what we'll receive for Christmas," says Stephanie. When they're shopping for gifts, her 9-year-old daughter might pick out something and say, "I would really like this; I'll bet this little girl would like it, too."
When one of her children was in kindergarten, the class donated its Christmas tree—adorned with decorations made by the children—to an Angel Tree family that would otherwise not have had a tree. Since then, the kindergartners' class has done this each year. Stephanie chooses the family—usually one with a lot of children that could never afford a Christmas tree on their own. She recruits her father, who owns a pickup truck, to help them deliver it, along with the other gifts.
SERVING FELLOW VOLUNTEERS
But as Angel Tree coordinator, Stephanie has a heart of compassion not only for the prisoners' children but also for the many local volunteers and churches that serve them. All, like Stephanie, are motivated by their Christian faith and the loving example of Jesus, who told his followers, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me" (Mark 9:37).
Stephanie is aware that many of the volunteers "give sacrificially," both in time and money, to help these children, not only at Christmas but increasingly throughout the year. In January she and Brian invite all of the volunteers to dinner at a local restaurant to share their Christmas experiences with the prisoners' families and "celebrate what God has done." More than 130 attended this past January's dinner, completely paid for by the Byrds.
Stephanie also spearheaded a summer camp ministry for prisoners' children, connecting with local Christian camps to provide a wonderful summer adventure never experienced by most of these kids. Again, churches and volunteers cover the costs.
"We run into all kinds of needs with the kids," says Stephanie. The day before the kids are scheduled to leave for camp—they all ride together on a bus—Stephanie calls their caregivers as a reminder. Sometimes she hears, "Oh, he won't be able to go. We don't have what he needs"—swimsuit, shorts, jeans, bug spray, etc. So Stephanie jumps in to resolve the obstacles, "and someone will make a Wal-Mart run to get the stuff." She believes no child should have to miss such a wonderful summer opportunity for lack of the right clothes or toiletries.
WHY SHE KEEPS GOING
Now Stephanie's love for Angel Tree has gone international. In August she and her family visited Kenya, including a trip to the capital of Nairobi, where they met with the staff of Prison Fellowship Kenya and visited a women's prison where children up to age four live with their moms. The Byrds also visited government- and church-run group homes for children of prisoners.
"We’re now in contact with the Prison Fellowship Kenya staff, exploring the possibility of Ft. Worth Angel Tree partnering with Prison Fellowship Kenya to help meet the needs of Angel Tree kids there," Stephanie says excitedly. "The needs of the children are tremendous!"
What motivates Stephanie in her ministry? "We just see Jesus," she says, "and we don't want to miss that. He loves these families and is looking out for them."
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