A letter from Angel Tree Camping® took 8-year-old Nina by surprise and changed her life forever.
Former Angel Tree® child Nina Forsyth has a passion for people, music, and nature. She graduated from Colorado State University in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in music and now teaches at a private academy. She also works at a coffee shop and leads Sunday worship at church.
This is her story, as told to a Prison Fellowship® writer.
My music students come to me with hard questions—real questions about who God is, or advice for things that happen at school. Being able to relate my experience with students who struggle is really meaningful. Music shaped a lot of who I was, through working with teachers, similar to how Angel Tree did. It helped mold me on my journey.
I wasn't upset most of the time as a young girl. It was just a hard situation to understand—to think about my dad in prison. We would talk on the phone, but we felt very distant. I didn't know him. I've never lived in the same house with him. I grew up living with my mom and grandma in South Carolina.
One year, Dad asked what I wanted for Christmas, and I remember not knowing what to say. I wasn't used to him asking about presents. I wanted things to bake with, so I wished for measuring cups and teaspoons and a cookie sheet. We had one glass measuring cup at the time. When Angel Tree volunteers arrived with those gifts from my dad, I was blown away. I remember meeting the delivery family and getting to say, "Thank you."
TAKING A CHANCE
I got a different kind of Angel Tree delivery when I was 8. It was an invitation to attend a week of summer camp through an Angel Tree Camping scholarship. Someone, somewhere, was thinking of me because my dad was incarcerated. How special, right?
But I was nervous. I had a lot of separation anxiety as a kid. I struggled to fit in at school. Since my mom is disabled, my grandma played a huge role in raising me; as a result, I was brought up with her Finnish traditions and culture. So, that was "different." We relied a lot on Social Security checks. On top of that, my dad was away in prison. I didn't relate to a lot of the people around me. The thought of a week at camp terrified me at first.
Now, I'm so glad I took the chance. Angel Tree camp pushed me to do something I was afraid to do, but I'm thankful now. It was so wonderful being pushed out of my boundaries in a safe place, with counselors and new friends.
At Angel Tree camp, I fit in. The counselors are there to make sure everyone feels welcome. I came out of my shell—no pressure to look a certain way or be a certain person. Camp is a safe place.
Having something to look forward to in the summer is huge for a kid. Especially when you have friends going to different countries or even states. Angel Tree camp meant I had something to talk about, too. Just getting to be in a lake for once, being in nature, besides what was right outside my house—that was my vacation. Without camp, I couldn't have gone zip lining, jumping on the inflatable blob, rock climbing. I still rock climb to this day. It keeps me active and healthy.
Most importantly, I grew spiritually healthy at camp. I got a Bible and started memorizing verses. My counselor Bethany felt like an older sister, and we would pray and talk about everything going on with my family. At chapel and campfire, there was always a great sense of peace. I loved the camp songs. I'd go home and sing them all year long.
STAYING THE COURSE
In one lesson, we read the Psalm that talks about how we're the sheep, and Jesus is the shepherd. We took turns wearing a blindfold and had to follow a camp counselor, just listening to her voice. We learned that's what God does. We don't always see where He's leading us, but we can trust Him.
I don't know if I would have kept following Jesus if it wasn't for Angel Tree camp. I didn't have a faith community for many years; I only went to camp. That kept me excited about Jesus. It helped me to always have somebody checking in on me—like, "Hey, you still know God loves you?"
Being at summer camp also helped pave the way for me to teach English in Italy over the last two summers. I'm pretty sure I got that job because I had prior camp experience, and I am so grateful. I'm excited to go to grad school and continue my studies. I love teaching, so I've thought about being a college professor one day and guiding young aspiring singers. I feel like I'm finding my place.
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