It was important to my dad to look perfect. He used to give us pep talks before going anywhere—about how to act, what to say—so that we wouldn't embarrass him.
Sydney's father was "a man of extremes" who beat her but also brought her presents when he went out of town. "I talk about him as if he's dead," she says, "because in a sense who he was, is."
Sydney was napping the day her father was arrested. A police officer woke her up. Her father was going to jail.
When Sydney's father was convicted, he was registered as a sex offender. "Before he was incarcerated, he was a teacher," she says. "His crime was very publicized." She was asked by friends and strangers for the "real story" and other inappropriate questions.
Life changed drastically for the hurting family. Her mother grew depressed. The family lost their home. It was hard to buy food, too. "We ate lots of spaghetti," Sydney remembers, "It's cheap." At a new school, her father's crime haunted her; she was terrified of what her classmates would say if they found out.
During the week at school, Sydney tried to keep up appearances. On the weekends, the family visited the prison. Sydney never got used to it. She hated being patted down by the guards. "I'm not the criminal here!" she thought.
"I talk about him as if he's dead," she says, "because in a sense who he was, is."
A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE
In prison, Sydney's father found a relationship with God. "I struggled a lot with trusting in the authenticity of his faith," Sydney says. "To be honest, his apparent devotion had me angry at God. I didn't want any part of it."
That first holiday season without their father looked bleak. Sydney's mother struggled to stretch her paycheck.
"We went to midnight mass at church," Sydney remembers. "When we came back, there were presents under the tree! The lights were glowing, and the house was absolutely silent. It was such a magical moment." Sydney's mother had given Angel Tree® volunteers a key to the house so that they could deliver gifts. "[They] let us have that magic for one more year," Sydney says.
"They all seemed so insanely happy and peaceful."
Angel Tree asked if Sydney and her brother would like to go to camp. Thrilled at the idea, their mother agreed, but Sydney was less enthusiastic. "No kid wants to feel like a charity case," she reflects. But her mother insisted, so to camp Sydney went.
She felt miserable those first few days. But she noticed something about her camp counselors. "They all seemed so insanely happy and peaceful," she says.
When Sydney asked her mentor why that was, she was told it was because they had personal relationships with God.
Such a relationship didn't seem possible to Sydney. She had committed too many sins. Why would God accept her? But that joy was too appealing to fight. "I reached out to my counselor … and accepted Christ," Sydney says.
Sydney returned to camp every year. The withdrawn girl became a counselor, connecting with other kids over their shared experiences. Sydney was no longer alone, and neither were the campers she cared for. And now Sydney's relationship with her father is healing. "We're definitely in a much healthier place," she says.
Today, Sydney continues to find ways to help other children like herself.