I remember the first gift I got from [Dad] was a sun catcher. You paint it and put it on your window. I remember I messed it up, but I still kept it … It's funny how a gift from someone you never get to see can mean so much.
Janise's father has been in and out of prison since she was two. She's 20 now, and she doesn't have many childhood memories of him.
A few of the memories she does have of her father, however, grew out of Angel Tree®.
Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship®, 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 incarcerated parent. Janise first discovered Angel Tree when she was in the fourth grade, growing up in Woodbridge, Virginia. Her mom came home one day with gifts from a sponsoring church nearby.
Gifts with Janise's name on them. To Janise, from Dad.
Every Christmas, the magic became less about the presents, and more about the sense that her father was thinking about her. Janise hadn't been forgotten. She was valued and she was loved. And when Dad called, Janise felt like Angel Tree gave them more to talk about.
Janise's mom picked up the gifts herself for years, stopping by the church and coming straight home. And then one Christmas, she and Janise decided to attend the church's Angel Tree party.
"I thought I was one of the only people this program was for," says Janise. "I didn't realize that I wasn't alone."
Janise got the chance to see Angel Tree in action. At the church, she met other families with stories much like hers. She also came face-to-face with the church members who worked to give her and others a special Christmas from their incarcerated parents. Suddenly Angel Tree meant a little bit more.
I thought it was really cool that it wasn't just one gift per family; everybody got a gift, like every single child was important. We got to meet a lot of the church volunteers who do deliveries, too. To see it all in one place was really special, and it made it feel real. We even got to take a family picture, and I think they sent it to my dad.
"I thought I was one of the only people Angel Tree was for.
... I didn't realize that I wasn't alone."
THE GIFT OF COMMUNITY
The following Sunday, Janise and her mother returned to the church, Victory Christian Ministries International, for a morning service. A church member came up to Janise and gave her a card, saying she'd left it at the party.
Janise tore it open. Then the tears came. The note was from her dad!
"I remember opening the card and crying in the middle of church," she says. "I wasn't expecting it. It was really sweet. I've kept every card I've gotten from him."
Janise was a senior in high school when she received her final Angel Tree gift. This time it came with a knock at the door:
We heard you couldn't make it to the program this year, so we wanted to make sure you got your gift.
Two church members. One more gift—with love, from Dad.
Janise says she'll never forget the church's kindness—their commitment to going out of their way to make sure that, for her final year of Angel Tree, she was remembered.
"I see life differently now that I've been in the [Angel Tree] program and become a part of the church. It gave me more opportunities beyond just Christmas," Janise explains. "I was able to connect with so many different people, and go on a missions trip to Mexico. It was a really cool experience that God gave me. … I think it would be nice to volunteer with the program to share my experience, and to touch the lives of other families who are going through the same thing I did."
Janise's father was released in April 2017. Their relationship isn't perfect, and they aren't as close as they might have been if he'd been around more during her childhood. Still, Janise is thankful for the chance she had to connect with him through Angel Tree. And she is hopeful for what is to come.
It's really different. I'm not used to having communication like this, knowing he's out now, being able to talk to him more often. I haven't seen him yet. I'm not used to having him around. … We have arguments sometimes, and it's hard. But I can't hate him because he's my dad.
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