The signs posted around the correctional facility were hard to miss, but Deborah didn't understand—what exactly was Angel Tree®?
It was 1995, and for the last two decades, Deborah Daniels had been in and out of prison. Her four children on the outside were being cared for by family.
"I asked an inmate, 'What is Angel Tree?' And she told me: 'It's an opportunity for you to sign your kids up to receive gifts from [you]'," Deborah remembers. "I didn't understand at the time how that could happen. If I'm in prison, what kind of gifts can I give them? Cookies? Soups? Candy or something?"
But she filled out an application for her kids. When she called her family on Christmas day, her children were elated.
"How did you know what I wanted?" her daughter asked.
Through Angel Tree, Deborah and her family began to heal.
SOWING WHAT YOU REAP
Looking back, Deborah sees how difficult she made life for her family.
"I had sowed some very evil things in my children's lives," she admits. "The men with the drugs, the lying, the cheating—the not being there as a mother. My oldest daughter was exhibiting the kind of behavior that I had shown her," says Deborah. "She was running away from home [and] staying out late at night."
But because of Angel Tree, Deborah was able to have a presence in her children's lives. She continued to sign her children up year after year. Not only did her involvement with Angel Tree strengthen her relationship with her children; it also opened the doors to a new church community.
"Briarwood Presbyterian Church became my children's Angel Tree sponsoring church," she says. "And they ministered to them not only at Christmas but year-round. They sent my daughter to camp. They also gave my youngest daughter a scholarship for ballet classes."
Angel Tree made a huge impact on Deborah's life. With the help of the church and Prison Fellowship®, Deborah was able sow healthy seeds in the lives of her children, even from behind bars.
THE DAUGHTER OF AN INCARCERATED WOMAN
Deborah was released in 1997. That same year, her mother was arrested on drug trafficking charges.
"I remember ... that feeling I had in watching my mom in handcuffs, and I thought to myself, 'This is what I put my children through,'" Deborah says. "I remember Christmases without my mother being there. I remember not being able to call her when I just needed to ask a question."
Now, more than ever, Deborah felt the impact of Angel Tree on her family. She sought to become a certified Prison Fellowship volunteer, and eventually became the Angel Tree church coordinator at Briarwood.
"It gave me such a wonderful feeling of value and worth … for God to utilize me in a capacity to make somebody else's life brighter, like [Angel Tree] had made our life brighter," she explains.
In 2000, a staff position with Prison Fellowship opened. Although Deborah did not see herself as qualified for the job, her church and fellow Angel Tree volunteers encouraged her to apply. And when Deborah was hired, Briarwood sent her back to school so she could continue her education. They bought her a new car so she could drive to work. One Prison Fellowship volunteer named Sharon even gave Deborah a whole new set of clothes and shoes for her new job.
"Briarwood was that connection from the inside to the outside, through Angel Tree and restoring my family and my children and making us whole again."
BRINGING JOY TO OTHER FAMILIES
Deborah has continued working with Prison Fellowship ever since. Today she is the Southeast area director for the organization, but her heart and passion are still with the Angel Tree program.
"It is [an] opportunity that I get for God to utilize me to be a part of a child's life," Deborah explains, "to say to them that their mom or dad has not forgotten them. And that is such joy. … I believe that [Angel Tree] was designed by God to help mend those relationships that are broken. Those little ones are not forgotten."