When Justin Wiggins was in the fourth grade, he wrote down what he thought was a far-fetched Christmas wish. He stuffed it in an envelope and addressed it not to Santa Claus, but to his father, John, in prison.
It was his mom's idea. Justin's dad had written a letter explaining he had signed up Justin for Angel Tree®. Angel Tree is a program of Prison Fellowship® that gives incarcerated parents a way to provide a Christmas gift to their child.
Now, at 28, Justin can still remember how he felt writing that one wish down: a scooter. He wasn't hopeful. While his mother always did her best to make sure he enjoyed the holidays, Justin still desired to be with both his parents at Christmastime. And he wished he could open gifts from both of them. That warm, holiday-movie kind of magic usually skipped his house.
But that changed with Angel Tree.
While his mother always did her best to make sure he enjoyed the holidays,
Justin still desired to be with both his parents at Christmastime.
And he wished he could open gifts from both of them.
But that changed with Angel Tree.
'AN AMAZING FEELING'
It came down to Christmastime, and I got the scooter … it just made me feel like my dad did his part to get me something. I was shocked. I remember the gift had my dad's name on it. To see my mom's face, when she [saw] me happy, and realizing that hey, my dad made a way even though he's not here, to get me the one thing I asked for, for Christmas—it was just an amazing feeling. I felt love from both of my parents at the same time, and that had never really happened up until that point.
Later Justin learned that church volunteers, who didn't even know him, had made this delivery possible. "I understood they were giving from their heart," Justin shares.
That heart-felt expression of God's love gave him strength beyond Christmas.
Even though I was happy the majority of the time, there would be certain things—your first sports game, or a graduation—that really you don't know how to deal with. I feel like the family might not always know how to help you deal with those feelings either. … It's not like your parent is deceased, but they aren't there, and it's hard to find someone who can relate to exactly what you're going through. It was hard not to internalize anger and frustration.
Angel Tree gave Justin and his father John a special way to maintain a close relationship, despite their physical separation throughout Justin's childhood. The year before graduating college, Justin was the best man in John's wedding in prison.
But while 95 percent of all prisoners are released, two out of three are rearrested within three years. The spring of Justin's college graduation, his father returned to prison.
The strength of the father and son's relationship was about to be tested.
"It's not like your parent is deceased, but they aren't there, and it's hard to find someone who can relate to exactly what you're going through."
BURYING THE HATCHET
His dad's reincarceration unearthed some negative feelings that Justin had never properly addressed. But he remembered the days of Angel Tree, when his relationship with his father meant everything in the world.
Justin sought therapy, gathered wisdom from his family, and dealt with the emotional baggage he'd tucked away for so long. On Thanksgiving Day, 2016, he chose to take a phone call from Dad.
It was the first time they'd spoken in over four years.
That first phone call was nerve-racking because I didn't know how it was going to go. … So all this was in front of family and everything. It was at Thanksgiving, and normally [Dad] calls and the phone gets passed around, and for the past few years I'd just say, 'No, I don't want to speak to him.' But this time I did.
I could just feel everyone around me like holding their breath not knowing what I was going to say or do. It was actually really good. We didn't speak on the past. It was more of a 'I'm just really happy to hear your voice' type of thing.
That's when Justin realized, What better place to rekindle their relationship, than around family? "And I was like, I can't keep harboring hate around so much love," he adds. "So that inspired me to go ahead and just bury the hatchet and start new."
Since that Thanksgiving, Justin and John have talked faithfully every Saturday.
"I can't keep harboring hate around so much love."
THANK YOU, ANGEL TREE
John is scheduled to be released in 2018.
And Justin appreciates Angel Tree even more now than he did back in fourth grade.
The kids that are affected by the Angel Tree program, they're innocent. Regardless of what their parents have done to land in that situation, the kid is innocent, and they deserve that love and attention and support that their parent may not be able to give them. So people like mentors and Angel Tree donors are always so appreciated, and I thank them for all of it.
In 2012, Justin earned his bachelor's degree in marketing. He went on to earn his post-graduate degree in nonprofit management in 2016. Today, he lives in California and works as a website content category manager.
Because of the impact of Angel Tree, he plans to continue serving and mentoring children with stories like his.
DID YOU ENJOY THIS ARTICLE?
Make sure you don' t miss out on any of our helpful articles and incredible transformation stories! Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter, and you' ll get great content delivered directly to your inbox.
Your privacy is safe with us. We will never sell, trade, or share your personal information.