How Serena found God, let go of her worries, and connected with her children.
Serena Steenholdt was 10 years old the first time she landed in a juvenile center. Growing up biracial in a mostly white South Dakota town, she experienced major racism—even from her own half-siblings and other white relatives. She never knew her father. She also suffered abuse from her uncle. Serena struggled to cope with overwhelming emotions. Distrust and resentment toward her family and her community hardened her heart, and Serena began acting out.
As her rebellious behavior grew, her mother didn't know where to turn. At age 12, Serena was placed in a psychiatric hospital. She remembers taking 13 pills a night.
Serena's life kept spiraling out of control. By her mid- 20s, she had three daughters with two different men, and one of the dads wound up in prison.
Struggling to make ends meet, she became desperate to support her kids financially. She tried several things but still came up short. As a last resort, Serena turned to drug trafficking. She soon found herself in handcuffs and headed to prison at age 27. Serena's children were split up, with her mother and sister as caretakers.
LETTING GO OF WORRIES
In prison, Serena felt she had let her children down. She also worried they would follow the same destructive path she had taken.
Despite her fears and disappointments, she would take comfort in her memories. She often thought back to one older Christian couple she knew growing up who were like adoptive grandparents to her.
"I always believed in God, but … whenever I needed prayer, I'd ask them to pray," says Serena.
Serena found comfort in that couple's prayers when she was younger. In prison, she wondered if their connection to God was something she needed for herself, now more than ever. One day in the prison chapel, she heard a lady sing, "Jesus, lover of my soul … ."
"That just grasped me, and it broke me down," remembers Serena.
After that day, she began her own personal relationship with Jesus, finally seeing God through her own eyes instead of through the elderly couple’s eyes. She started reading the Bible and spending time with other women in the prison who shared her new interest in living life God’s way.
THE GIFT OF CONNECTION
Serena was finally taking care of herself physically, emotionally, and spiritually like never before. As she discovered her value as a child of God, she still thought about her own children every day. They meant the world to her.
Each birthday, she scrounged up what she could to send a gift, even if it meant spending months of her wages. She didn't want them to ever forget how much she loved them.
Then Serena saw a flyer for Angel Tree®, a program of Prison Fellowship® that enables incarcerated parents to sign up their child to receive a Christmas gift. That next Christmas, all three of Serena's daughters received a personalized gift from their mother, delivered by Angel Tree. Even though they were physically far apart, Angel Tree connected them in a special way. The program also gave Serena a way to share with her children about her faith in Jesus and the true meaning of Christmas.
"When I went into prison, I felt like such a worthless parent," admits Serena. "[So] my whole goal was to not let my daughters suffer like I did. But what could I do now that we were separated? Angel Tree became the answer, and I thank Jesus."
For the woman who struggled to trust anyone, Angel Tree changed everything. She finally realized that she didn't have to try to control everything. She could surrender to God, and He could connect her and her family.
A NEW WOMAN AND A BETTER MOM
After two years in prison, Serena returned home a new woman—and a better mom. Now living in Arizona, she has found a strong church community and has volunteered with Celebrate Recovery, a biblically based recovery group. She volunteers as an assistant to Prison Fellowship field staff regularly.
And Serena and her daughters have served as Angel Tree volunteers, giving back to the program that once gave so much to them.
"Even when money was tight, my daughters would rather do without a gift of their own, just to get a gift for another child," Serena explains. "That's how much Angel Tree matters."
Serena admits that life and motherhood are still challenging at times. But she faces every step of the journey with hope and joy. Through tears, she says, "God is so much bigger than I ever thought."
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