Strangers stole their Angel Tree® gifts two days before the Christmas party, but Ruby and her fellow Blue Ridge Fellowship volunteers discovered there was one thing that couldn't be taken away.
The last thing Angel Tree coordinator Ruby Payne expected was a robbery. Two days before last December's Angel Tree event, Robin and her volunteers arrived at Blue Ridge Fellowship in Woodlawn, Virginia, party decorations in hand.
They were there to move about 80 gifts from storage to the main church building. But the gifts were gone.
Ruby's team searched every corner, hallway, and bathroom. All they found were bows and wrapping paper strewn across the dirt out back. Tire tracks showed the last sign of whoever had taken the presents.
In a moment, the Blue Ridge decorating party turned into a search party—a search for new gifts—so the mission of Angel Tree could still go on.
A PERSONAL PASSION
Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship®, provides pathways to strengthened and restored relationships between prisoners and their families. And it wouldn't be possible without dedicated volunteers like Ruby, who rise above the challenges to give families hope.
Ministry to prisoners isn't just a passion for Ruby. It's personal. Her husband's nephew, who is like a son to them, is incarcerated. This nephew, the father of a 3-year-old girl, is awaiting his trial and may face up to 10 years. "It's been really tough," she says. "We have no clue right now what’s going to happen. But he is writing us letters, wanting Scripture. And his letters have changed a little bit from what they were in the beginning, leaning more towards God."
Then there are the families of the prisoners Ruby ministers to through Angel Tree. Mothers like Jenna*, who has custody of her younger brother and cares for two children of her own while their father is incarcerated. Ruby has kept in touch with Jenna for some time, building a trusting relationship and meeting the family's needs when possible. "They are so, so thankful," Ruby says.
Ruby knew she couldn't let so many families down. And her team didn't disappoint. Dozens of Blue Ridge volunteers met at a local department store to divide and conquer. "I just had a great team," Ruby remembers. "Volunteers brought their own kids. They were really excited for their kids to see the 'giving' side of Christmas, not just the 'getting' side."
Blue Ridge came together to front the cost of replacing each gift, knowing God would provide. Through the chaos of shopping, Ruby and her volunteers held to their purpose, and just two hours later, they had what they needed. Christmas was saved.
What could have been Blue Ridge's biggest holiday setback turned into their biggest Angel Tree party yet. Despite the threat of snow, eager families arrived on time—some even early—to enjoy brunch, photos, Christmas music, and a group devotional. Ruby counted about 40 attendees.
"Everyone is very appreciative," says Ruby, looking back. "Caregivers know what it's all about. They just continually thank us and are so appreciative. They say, 'I hope God blesses you all for what you're doing. It's so important.'"
News reporters on the scene asked Ruby about the robbery: "How did you feel? Were you angry?" Ruby simply replied, "We didn't want that to be our church. We weren't out for vengeance. ... What we were really trying to do was to show grace to whoever did this. We would have liked them to come to us if they were struggling, because we could have helped."
It's Ruby’s third year as a program coordinator, and her love for Angel Tree grows every year. To give more time to the program and other volunteer service, she recently transitioned from full-time to part-time as a registered nurse.
As Angel Tree expands at her church, so does Ruby's motivation to further the program and share her passion with others. She keeps most of her Angel Tree coordinator materials in one tote bag, ready for the next person to fill her shoes.
"I tell my husband, 'Now, if something happens to me, this is all my Angel Tree stuff, so they’re not lost when they take over for me!'" Ruby laughs. "I'm really looking forward to seeing Angel Tree grow in our community."
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