Cory first used pot when he was just five years old. It was an introduction that ultimately led to drug addiction, arrest, and incarceration.
After serving his time, Cory became a father. He and his wife Melissa named their daughter Kyla. But even in his exciting new role as Dad, his old lifestyle didn't disappear. He returned to prison for a second term, again on drug charges.
'HE CHOSE DRUGS OVER ME'
The devastating pain of his desertion and betrayal overshadowed little Kyla's thoughts of him from the time she was a little girl.
"I felt worthless," she says, "which really messed with my self-esteem as I got older. When I say I felt 'worthless,' I mean I felt like I didn't matter. How could I matter? My own dad didn't want me. He chose drugs over me."
Serving a seven-year prison term, Cory's life crumbled. Melissa divorced him, and Kyla wanted nothing to do with him.
"I hated him," says Kyla. "I never wanted to see him, meet him, [or] be in contact with him."
A NEW CREATION
And then, Cory gave his life to Jesus.
The transformation was powerful. He took several Bible and biblical parenting courses offered by Prison Fellowship®. In his prison cell, Cory prayed for the restoration of his family. He sought the Lord and trusted His promises, even when he was discouraged.
What's more, Cory kept in touch—faithfully—with Kyla. His newfound faith in God motivated him to do everything in his power to seek restoration and forgiveness. He wanted Kyla and Melissa to know that he meant what he said: He wanted his family to be restored.
One thing Cory did for Kyla was sign her up for Angel Tree®. Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship, serves incarcerated parents by providing a pathway for restoring and strengthening their relationships with their children and families. Prison Fellowship mobilizes local churches and community organizations to give hundreds of thousands of children a gift, the Gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their incarcerated parent.
"It was always special to her," Melissa says. "There was always a handwritten tag from Cory to Kyla. Angel Tree was extremely important to both of them. It showed the love that God has for us and for the prisoners who can't be there for their kids. It's a huge blessing!"
When she opened her gifts, Kyla would say, "I got this from my dad!"
IN GOD'S TIMING
But as important as Angel Tree was for Kyla, deep down she still didn' want to have anything to do with her dad—or with God. The wounds were still raw. His crimes still separated them.
"I didn't want a father-daughter or even friend-to-friend relationship with him," Kyla says. She was still devastated by the thought that her dad had chosen drugs over her. "My dad wrote to me every week," she recalls, "while I wrote to him maybe once or twice a year."
Near the end of his second prison sentence, Cory told Kyla that upon his release, he planned to participate in a Christian program designed to help prisoners successfully reenter their community. He again was signaling to her that he intended to keep his promises to find a path of reconciliation for their family.
It was the moment God had prepared for Kyla. "I wish it had been earlier," she says, "but it was all in His timing." God turned her heart back towards her father and started their family on the road to healing.
"That was my wake-up call to follow Him," Kyla says, remembering with joy that special turning point in her life. "For the very first time God spoke to me and told me to reach out to my dad and meet him when he got out. So I did. I'm so thankful I did, because now my family is completely restored."
A FUTURE AND A HOPE
One year after her father was released from prison a second time, Kyla's parents were remarried. Her dad has been sober for nine years.
Kyla started attending church and youth group, and eventually she discovered a pathway she had never considered before: "I want to be a children's pastor when I grow up!" Kyla has come a long way since the days she believed her dad cared more about drugs than about her. Now, she's encouraging other kids to get involved in church and invite their friends.
"And don't just go for friends," she says. "Do it to hear the Word of God, and feel His presence."
Angel Tree was a starting point for Kyla. She wasn't ready to fully trust God then, in part because she couldn't trust her own father. But the love and care she experienced through Angel Tree shaped enough of a place in her heart that ultimately she reconciled with her father and received Jesus.
"I absolutely loved the gifts," she remembers. "I felt like my dad knew what I liked, and I felt he knew me."
THESE CHILDREN MATTER
Kyla's journey exemplifies the struggle every one of this year's Angel Tree children is going through right now. Brokenness. Alienation. Despair. In many cases, these kids even need food and other basics of life.
But Kyla wasn't just needy and lonely, as devastating as those feelings are. She wanted to matter. To her father and to God. She wanted to be loved and known … not rejected for drugs.
So many children want much the same.