In December 2017, we brought you Justin Wiggins' personal experience with Angel Tree in "Just One Wish for Justin." The following is Part II of Justin's story.
The sun had just risen in Northern California. Dozens of wide-eyed children eagerly filled a bus headed for an Angel Tree Sports Clinic. Volunteer Justin Wiggins rode along with them, asking for their names and passing around food. He'd never seen kids so excited about breakfast burritos.
If they were this excited about breakfast, there was no telling what their reaction would be to what was coming next. "They couldn't even fathom what was in store for them," says Justin. As the day unfolded, the children realized, Oh, we get to play football!
TACKLING LIFE TOGETHER
Across the country, Angel Tree Sports Clinics bring children of prisoners together to help them gain skills in various sports and learn about God's love. 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. With lessons designed to build skills, confidence, and character, these Sports Clinics serve at-risk youth who might not have the chance to go to a sports clinic or camp. Kids of all ages and abilities have the unique opportunity to learn from the best—college sports stars and former professional athletes, many of whom have experienced similar personal struggles, including parental incarceration.
The number of children affected by incarceration is staggering: 2.7 million children in the United States today have a parent in prison. Having a mom or dad behind bars can be devastating, leaving a child to experience a unique combination of trauma, stigma, and shame. But through programs such as Angel Tree, showing children that they are loved, valued, and full of potential can change their lives forever.
Justin knows what that's like. His father signed him up for Angel Tree Christmas when Justin was in the fourth grade. Now, as an Angel Tree volunteer, Justin hoped to reach into the lives of kids who desperately need a role model.
Then Justin saw 7-year-old Alex* playing in the grass alone.
In the United States, 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars. The majority of prisoners are held in correctional facilities more than 100 miles from their children.
More than half haven't seen their children since they were incarcerated.
THE STRENGTH TO BE REAL
I'd seen that the other kids were kind of like making friends right away … So, I kind of latched onto [Alex] early on to help him enjoy his time like everyone else. It started just by telling silly jokes, and asking what his favorite music was. Once we kind of like connected with Drake—he loved Drake—I was like, 'Oh, man, I went to a Drake concert,' and he was like, 'Oh you’ve actually seen him?!' 'Yeah, it was great.' And from that moment on, me and him were cool. He would kind of rap and sing Drake lyrics throughout the day, and I would join in with him. It was pretty fun.
Their conversation took a turn at lunchtime as Alex revealed the reason behind his shyness.
Alex had never tossed a football with his dad or learned to play the game. He felt the sting of that loss while the other kids were laughing and playing on the field.
"That was kind of a touching moment," says Justin, "because that was kind of my story."
Justin shared about the days his own dad was in prison. He had no memories of tossing a football together, either. But Justin built a relationship with his dad from a distance—largely through Angel Tree. Even when feelings of abandonment and shame started seeping in, he knew he was loved by his parents and by God.
Justin still learned to play sports, went on to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees, and landed a job as a marketing manager in California. He shared with Alex that life is all about choices.
That was a way for him to realize, This guy has a similar story that I did, and look at him now. So, I was basically telling him about my life, about me going to school and coming from the East Coast, and being here now. We just really clicked. 'I'm here because my dad can't teach me, because he's in jail,' he said. And I said that doesn't mean you can't be great … And just because your dad isn't around, that doesn't mean that he doesn't love you, or that he doesn't want you to be successful. I told him that I had to learn to play football and basketball on my own because my dad wasn't there. But I looked for those other adults and mentors to fill in that role, for me to look up to.
'I'm here because my dad can't teach me, because he's in jail,' he said.
I said, 'Just because your dad isn't around, that doesn't mean that he doesn't love you, or that he doesn't want you to be successful.'
NOT JUST A GAME
The drills and lessons continued. The boy who once played alone in the grass now called his new friend "Coach Justin." Before leaving, they shared a hug.
Justin still remembers the bus ride home. Even some of the children who stayed silent on the morning bus had perked up. He smiled at what he overheard.
"I can't wait to play more."
"I'm going to try out for a team!"
"Do we really have to leave?"
That's the power of just one day at an Angel Tree Sports Clinic. Justin puts it this way:
Some of the kids we brought were low-income, or even homeless, so some of the smallest things … meant the world to them. Like on the verge of tears, [they said,] 'This is for us and we don't have to pay for anything? This is amazing.' They really got something from it. It was really something they felt like they were a part of.
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