How a hardened prisoner's icy heart melted from the warmth of Angel Tree.
The following article was originally published in Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
It was count time. Michigan prisoner Doug Cupery wondered what the flurry down the line was about. Prisoners were receiving papers to fill out. When the corrections officer reached Doug's cell, he told him it was for Angel Tree®. Fill out the application, he was told, and strangers would buy and deliver Christmas gifts to his two young children. It almost sounded like a prison scam, but Doug was determined to find out for himself.
Doug was born into a good home in western Michigan. But tragedy struck when he was just 4 years old. His father, a Marine pilot, died in a plane crash. Doug's mother, left to raise the family alone, did her best but turned to alcoholism. Without discipline and accountability, Doug also became involved in substance abuse from his teens to his 20s.
But Doug made it to adulthood, studying to become a paramedic and a registered nurse. He married his girlfriend, and they settled down to raise two great kids. The American Dream was well within his reach, but the past still dogged Doug. His inability to handle accountability led him into trouble with the law. In 1998, he was arrested, convicted, and faced with the possibility of some significant prison time.
WALKING A DIFFERENT PATH
While he was awaiting sentencing, some past friends with church connections began showing up to offer Doug support and advice. They explained how Doug could not continue living on his own terms but needed stability in his life. He needed a firm anchor, and Jesus could become what he was missing. In 1998, Doug entered Chippewa Prison on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, where he would spend the next three years. Conditions were often freezing cold. "I saw snowflakes in June," he recalls. But Doug's icy heart was melting. He vowed to leave prison as a different man, one his family could depend on.
He says, "I found some men within the prison who helped me to not only learn how to 'do prison,' but they also helped me to walk a different path. Looking back, I found the first lessons of what it means to be a real Christian, a man, a husband and father, within the walls of a prison."
IS ANGEL TREE FOR REAL?
About that time, Doug saw Angel Tree Christmas applications passed out and asked the other men about it. Could Angel Tree be real? Would strangers really go out and spend their own money to buy Christmas gifts for his children? Or was it just another prison scam? He had a daughter, 3, and a son, 5, back home. They faced a difficult Christmas season with Doug gone.
A friend assured him it was all true, that Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program had been buying and delivering gifts to the children of prisoners since 1982. In wonderment, Doug sat down and completed the application. Sure enough, shortly before Christmas, Angel Tree volunteers showed up at his home with the gifts Doug had suggested for his two children. And they included the Christmas wishes that Doug had asked the volunteers to convey to his children on his behalf.
Doug notes, "I participated in Angel Tree for two years and was very thankful to be part not only for my children, but because it allowed me to be their dad even though I was away from them."
CHALLENGES AND DREAMS
Coming home from prison is never easy for anyone. Doug had the support of the church that had cared for his family, but obstacles remained.
"I tried to put my past behind me, but my prison years and background would often pop to the forefront. Whether it was related to finding a job or just getting my head together, that experience was always present."
Soon Doug began to run into other former prisoners who were experiencing the same challenges he was.
"I started looking into this and wondering what could be done to change the course of individuals' lives—men and women— who had completed their prison sentences yet struggled with the unexpected consequences that followed release."
Doug began to see how God had changed his own life. He wanted to help other returning citizens do the same. As good-hearted and caring Christians in his community saw men and women returning home from prison as no different from them, doors opened. And Doug was able to move forward with a new dream, creating a prison ministry and reentry program within his own church. That ministry has reached out to many people returning from prison in Michigan.
Doug says, "I have never forgotten the impact Angel Tree had on me and my family. I work together now with my ministry and Prison Fellowship, not only on a personal level, but also on a professional level. […] We are working on ways to […] walk alongside prisoners' children not just at Christmas but throughout the year."
Doug, whose children are now grown up and attending college, adds, "Through Angel Tree, my own children received many opportunities to grow while I was absent."
WHAT IS ANGEL TREE?
Approximately 2.7 million children in America have an incarcerated parent. That's about one in 28. Many of these children suffer heartache, loneliness, and shame. Angel Tree provides incarcerated parents with a pathway for strengthening and restoring their relationships with their children and families.
Prison Fellowship mobilizes local churches and community organizations to give hundreds of thousands of children a Christmas gift, the Gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their incarcerated parent. In addition, many partner churches meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of prisoners' families through year-round ministry such as camping and mentoring.
You, too, can be a part of this ministry. Visit AngelTree.org to find out how you can contribute through giving of your time and finances.
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