Paula's friends still wonder how she forgave her dad.
Other kids got kisses and hugs from their fathers at the end of the day. Paula's X's and O's came from Daddy on a plain sheet of paper, the game of tic-tac-toe they mailed back and forth.
"I'm living in New York," he'd tell her, leaving her to wonder why, as she sat in her mother's little apartment in California. Paula would race home from school every Tuesday just to sit by the phone and wait for her father to call.
Later she would learn that he'd been calling from prison.
A SURPRISE AT THE DOOR
Now in her 20s, Paula looks back at the past, and it makes sense. She knows why, around age 6, she received a visitor who had a special Christmas delivery: a hot pink sweater with snowflakes on the front, not only from a name-brand store, but from Daddy.
"I still remember what it looked like," says Paula.
And she still remembers the thoughts that flooded her mind:
My dad bought me something! This is from my dad! An actual sweater, an actual gift. Wow, how does he know I would like this? Wow, he chose this for me … and had it sent all the way to California.
The visitor who brought the gift was a volunteer with Angel Tree®, a Prison Fellowship® program that mobilizes churches and organizations to deliver a gift, the Gospel, and a personal message of love to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents.
Angel Tree starts with a simple gift, like the pink sweater that Paula has long since outgrown. And it leads to so much more.
"It's not materialistic," says Paula. "It's about, how did [my dad] know what I wanted? You feel like all those days, weeks, or months that [their parents] haven't been there … Wow, they still care. They want to connect with me, to share with me."
"I think about how much it meant to my mom," she adds. "Any desperate caregiver might say, 'God, I didn't envision my life this way. I didn't ask to be a single parent.' But then Angel Tree is God's answer to that prayer."
MORE THAN A GIFT
But then Angel Tree is God's answer to that prayer."
As a child, Paula couldn't wait to share with others about the impact of Angel Tree. Not much has changed. She recently started giving back to the program that changed her life—and encouraged others to do the same. Paula manages an AT&T store where, instead of exchanging gifts among themselves, employees came together to participate in Angel Tree.
"What got me to give back is not only the giving of gifts, but knowing [that Angel Tree shares with] kids about the love of Christ," explains Paula. "Knowing how that impacts my life now, I think it's amazing. A lot of families don't really have hope, or know what's going to come next."
And Paula knows what it's like to face Christmas when your family is just scraping by—for finances, for stability, for hope.
"You might not see the impact at the moment you donate, the moment you get involved, but it really does have an eternal impact," Paula continues. "You may not see it in this lifetime. But this little action of your giving, something so small, can really change a person's life."
something so small, can really change a person's life."
Now, when Paula volunteers with Angel Tree, she hopes other children will feel a sense of connection to their incarcerated parents, just like she did—even when a relationship seems impossible.
So how did Paula decide to forgive the father she's only seen face-to-face a handful of times?
It's not a one-time decision, she says. And it's not easy. It's a daily prayer to let God take away any resentment, any hatred, that tries to seep in:
"As I got older, people would say, how can you still have a relationship with [your dad]? As an adult, how can you forgive him? You know what, he's paying for what he did. He couldn't be at my graduation, or at my wedding. But at least he always gave me the time, sent me things … God has guarded my heart my whole life, against the bitterness and anger."
"Imagine, I only interacted with [Angel Tree] once," she marvels, recalling the day she unwrapped that hot pink sweater. "And it had such a huge impact. Giving to Angel Tree is life-changing. They are planting that seed … they could be an answer to prayer."
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