Dulce Andrade Benitez's first memory of her father Gilberto was when she was four—when she and her mother moved from Mexico to California to live with him. Before that, nothing. He had gone to prison when she was 10 days old.
"I didn't like him, because I did not know him," she says. "To me, my dad was [like] my uncle."
Dulce was six when Gilberto went back to prison. "When the police got there to take him away, he just grabbed my hand and he said, 'I'm going to leave for a long time and you have to take care of your mom and your sister.'"
Over the next two decades, this became the pattern with her dad: out of prison for a while, then back in again for another drug-related charge. She's added it up. She’s only lived three of her 22 years in same house as her father.
I grew up visiting a lot of prisons. I still hold on to the big box I have at home of all the letters and holiday cards. He has missed the most important days of my life.
Important days like special Father's Day events, or school events that involved two parents. And especially holidays.
"When the police got there to take him away, he just grabbed my hand and he said,
'I'm going to leave for a long time and you have to take care of your mom
and your sister.'"
WHAT HURT THE MOST
Confused and shocked by her father's incarceration, a young Dulce had to mature quickly. Her mother, an immigrant, didn't have more than a middle school education and had previously depended on her husband for financial support. They now survived on welfare and the little Dulce’s mother brought in from selling beauty care products, babysitting, and cleaning houses. The small family of three lived in a trailer park in a "really socially disorganized area" in San Diego. Dulce remembers the family had to drive far to get a visit with Dad at whatever prison he was currently in.
Because of this new way of life, Dulce's thoughts about her dad remained conflicted.
"I loved him," she admits. Still, what hurt the most was "know[ing] that he could be out here, but he's not."
And she always had questions, lots of them … "that no one would answer for me."
When Gilberto came out of prison the next time, Dulce was 11.
One day I just came home from school
and my dad was sitting there.
Initially, she was happy to see him, but after a month, when he started telling her what she should and shouldn't do, the pre-teen pushed back.
"Who are you to tell me what to do? You haven't been here!" she would yell at him.
A year later, Gilberto was back in prison.
By then, I was just angry, because I couldn't believe that was happening again.
When Gilberto came out of prison the next time, Dulce was 11.
"One day I just came home from school and my dad was sitting there."
ONE BRIGHT SPOT
"I had grown up not liking the holidays because we didn't have family here in San Diego to celebrate with like everybody else," Dulce says.
But in the middle of the anger, bewilderment, and loneliness, there was a recurring bright spot in in the holiday season. Back when Dulce was six-years-old, she, her mother, and her little sister were invited to an Angel Tree® Christmas party at a local church. Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship®, serves incarcerated parents by giving them a pathway to restore and strengthen relationships with their children and families. For hundreds of thousands of children like Dulce, it starts with a simple gift.
"I received a little doll I had been wanting," she remembers. And that doll helped her feelings toward her dad. "I really thought it was a gift my dad picked out. Those were his presents for me."
For the next 12 years, "I would receive a gift from Angel Tree, and that is what brought hope to me," Dulce says. "That was about the only presents we were receiving."
One Christmas, she remembered that people from a church showed up to sing carols for her family. They brought a huge basket of food with them. Soon her mother began attending that church. It's there that Dulce believes her mother really believed for the first time that God loved her and was there for her.
Although it would take a few more years for Dulce to truly embrace the love of Christ for her personally, the impact of that church lingered with her.
For the next 12 years Dulce would receive a gift from Angel Tree.
Those were the only presents she received.
TROUBLE AT THE STATION
As Dulce transitioned into her teenage years, she began playing out the confusing feelings that stirred within her.
"I didn't know how to express myself," she explains, "and I felt like by acting out, I was getting that attention. I was just angry."
She would run away or leave the house for hours on end, abandoning her mother to worry. Yet, through all of this, Dulce’s mother remained supportive, as did the great mentors Dulce had through a Latino youth organization and a program for at-risk teens. Still, Dulce kept rebelling.
By 15, Dulce had reached a breaking point. She had violated curfew many nights, but on this particular occasion the police were waiting for her when she got home. She got into a confrontation with them and they drove her to the station. The drive gave her time to process her life choices:
What am I doing? My mom doesn't deserve this. I know I can do better than this ... This is what everyone thinks I'm going to become because my dad is incarcerated. I'm going to be one of those statistics.
At the police station, the officers asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. "A probation officer," she said. The officers explained that her current behavior could be harmful to her future.
That moment was "life changing for me," she says. After that, she set her mind toward a more productive future and ended up graduating from high school with honors.
"I didn't know how to express myself, and I felt like by acting out,
I was getting that attention. I was just angry."
Since then, life has continued to have its ups and downs, but Dulce has remained on a hopeful path, particularly since she began seeking Christ more earnestly during college. And her relationship with her father, while still rocky at times, has improved.
On May 19, 2007, Dulce graduated from California State University San Marcos with her bachelor's degree in criminology and justice studies. Shortly afterward, she was hired as a student worker in a probation office and volunteered at the Drug Enforcement Administration—working hard to achieve her lifetime goal of becoming a probation officer. She was also accepted into a master's of social work program.
And just weeks before she got married in September, her father Gilberto was released from prison after 10 years. Although he had to return to Mexico shortly afterward, Dulce stays in close contact with him, trying to help him with his reentry efforts as much as she can from a distance.
As for Angel Tree, these days Dulce is on the other side, as a volunteer liaison to families impacted by incarceration.
I continue to volunteer for Angel Tree because it was a program that as a child gave me hope and lighten up the holidays. I want to continue doing that for kids with incarcerated parents. I want to be able to serve in giving them the joy of a gift.
It's a sentiment Dulce shares with her father. During his last prison sentence, Gilberto wrote to Prison Fellowship expressing his gratitude for the role Angel Tree has played in his relationship with his daughter:
For me to be incarcerate[d] sometimes it is hard to provide or buy any gifts [for] my beautiful daughter and being in your program has been a great blessing. I feel so thankful for what you've done to help me and my family.
These days Dulce is on the other side of Angel Tree
as a volunteer liaison to families impacted by incarceration.
"I want to continue doing that for kids with incarcerated parents.
I want to be able to serve in giving them the joy of a gift."
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