Recently, 21-year-old Vaughan Nelson saw a snapshot of his childhood self—T-shirt-clad, beaming smile, friends all around. He couldn't help but think, Wow, I've come so far. Some of those same friends are now living troubled lives. Vaughan easily could be, too.
Vaughan, who was small for his age, was the youngest of six in Tacoma, Washington. He loved playing basketball and never missed school. But Vaughan's family had a dark secret.
He knew his parents fought, but it wasn't until junior high when his parents' fights grew more frequent that Vaughan realized his father battled alcoholism. His dad's lifestyle led to multiple stints in jail—absences that Vaughan was always told were just "vacations."
A SAFE PLACE
"I wanted to avoid the streets," Vaughan recalls. "I've seen [that life], and even then, I thought, I'm not that type of person."
In eighth grade, Vaughan was sponsored to attend church camp in Oregon through Angel Tree Camping®. The program is a branch of Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree®, which serves children of incarcerated parents and provides pathways to connect prisoners' families at Christmas and beyond.
Coming from a disjointed family and feeling detached from God, Vaughan went to camp to have some fun and forget about home. He was just thankful to have a bed to himself for a week. Something about camp just clicked for him. Every day brought an adventure: a ropes course, go-karts, swimming, basketball, and new friends to try them with. Vaughan met counselors who really seemed to care; they wove God into everyday conversation.
"At high school, I couldn't have conversations about faith with anyone," says Vaughan. He remembers a time when one camper got difficult news over the phone, in the middle of a scheduled activity. Everyone immediately paused to offer comfort and support.
"We became close in those kinds of moments," Vaughan explains. "We reminded each other to persevere, [that] we're saved by Jesus, and we're OK. ... After camp, I was hearing and seeing God more clearly."
'I wanted to avoid the streets ... Even then, I thought, I'm not that type of person.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
Vaughan returned to camp for two more summers. Back home, he still kept in touch with two counselors, Doug and Josh. Several of his mentors pushed him to expand his horizons and reach for college. After all, Vaughan had always wanted to be a teacher.
When Vaughan was in early high school, his family moved two hours from Tacoma. It wasn't long before Vaughan was struggling. He didn't get along with his mom's new man, lost connection with his youth group and friends, and experienced bullying at a new school. "I was surrounded by people who didn't look like me or understand where I was coming from," Vaughan admits. "It was hard for me to make friends."
For a while, he couch-surfed at familiar homes back in Tacoma, just so he could have a taste of his old life—a taste of home. On the bus leaving Tacoma one night, the 16-year-old burst into tears. He begged God for answers. Why was life so hard?
"It was like God said, 'If you can persevere and don't give up, I guarantee you're going to make it through. And something is going to come out of it,'" Vaughan remembers.
'It was like God said, 'If you can persevere and don't give up,
I guarantee you're going to make it through. And something is going to come out of it.''
A CYCLE OF GOODNESS
Motivated by that promise and ongoing support from his mentors, Vaughan pressed on. He stayed active, running track through high school and early college. He kept checking in with Doug and Josh, studying God's Word with them and building his faith.
Then it was Vaughan's turn to serve as a counselor with Angel Tree Camping:
I've led some unique kids. I watched some of them say 'yes' to Jesus for the first time. ... I deal with a lot of kids who aren't able to express their emotions very clearly, and it's hard because they have a lot of walls. They can't sit still, or they're very defiant. But I know that's their way of crying out for help. Crying out for someone to ask them, 'Hey man are you OK?' Not every kid is 'bad.' They are going through something, and they're guarded. It's fun to watch those walls come down and watch them grow through Christ and with Christ.
Vaughan's journey has come full circle. "It's a cycle of goodness—somebody mentored me, and I'm who I am today. And now I can do that for someone else. I hope and pray they can do that for someone else and keep the cycle going."
'It's a cycle of goodness—somebody mentored me, and I'm who I am today.
And now I can do that for someone else. '
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