Joe Avila still has stacks of the letters and pictures his family sent during his incarceration—"volumes and volumes," he says. Each one is a small reminder of God's grace even in tragedy. In a different way, so is the highway sign that pleads, "Please don't drink and drive," near his home in Fresno, California.
"It happened because I was out drinking," Joe says of the 1992 car wreck that led to his incarceration. "There was a death. There was news. [Family members] were hurt really, really bad … and in my daughters' eyes, it was hard."
Joe was arrested in front of his daughters, an all-too-common occurrence when a parent is charged with a crime. Elizabeth was 11 and Grace was 6 when he went to prison.
"[Kids] look at a police officer and they get frightened, because they're the one that took their mom or dad away," says Joe. "And it shouldn't be that way, but unfortunately kids are the product of a parent's damage, you know?"
The ramifications for his family were sudden and real. His wife Mary was parenting alone and became the sole financial provider. The girls were growing up without Dad.
A FAMILY STAYS CONNECTED
WATCH: Joe was arrested in his front of his daughters, and feared for what having their father in prison would do to their relationship. That was when his family was introduced to Angel Tree, a unique ministry to the children of prisoners.
'[Kids] look at a police officer and they get frightened, because they're the one that took their mom or dad away. And it shouldn't be that way, but unfortunately kids are the product of a parent's damage.'
FINDING A CHANCE TO CONNECT
The reality of having a loved one in prison is hard to grasp without experiencing it. All kinds of heart-wrenching issues can fracture family bonds. All kinds of matters trigger angst, from discussing complicated legal processes to lamenting missed family holidays and milestones.
"On Christmas Eve night, I knew where my kids were—they were over with my brothers, with my family," remembers Joe. "So, I knew that they were having a great time. And you reflect on a lot of things. You reflect on your crime, you reflect on your life past, and you reflect on celebration too. But there's that solemn time."
The Avilas carried many burdens together even though they lived apart for the length of Joe's seven-year incarceration. That's what hit Joe the hardest—not the prison food or programming options, but the separation from home. Early on, the Avilas tried to avoid negative topics during phone calls, saving more difficult matters for letters and face-to-face visits.
Christmas was an especially trying time. Before the holidays, Joe saw an ad for Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® and signed up his daughters. Angel Tree mobilizes volunteers across the country to deliver a gift and the Gospel message to kids on behalf of their parents behind bars.
Through the Angel Tree prison ministry, Elizabeth and Grace connected with their dad and knew he hadn't forgotten them. Soon Joe began to serve as a program coordinator in the prison, giving more incarcerated fathers a chance to connect with their children.
THE BOND NO BARS CAN SEPARATE
Things began to change at home, too, as Mary connected with a Prison Fellowship® support group for spouses of prisoners. Someone invited her to church, where she and the girls began attending Sunday services and serving as Angel Tree volunteers. For several years, Elizabeth and Grace were delivering other families' gifts while also receiving Angel Tree gifts of their own, from their dad.
Joe couldn't watch his daughters grow up, but he did see their hope grow. At one family visit to the prison, Elizabeth and Grace mentioned the radical change they had noticed in their parents. It caught Joe by surprise.
And it shocked him even more when they said, "Dad, we want what you have."
"My kids received the Lord Jesus Christ behind bars," recalls Joe. "That was a day of celebration … something really, really cool to see."
'My kids received the Lord Jesus Christ behind bars. That was a day of celebration … something really, really cool to see.'
THE POWER OF A GIFT
"That [Angel Tree] gift is only a metaphor, because the real gift is Jesus Christ," says Joe. "And what Jesus Christ does … He extends his hand through that gift into that person."
Inside prison and out, the Avilas made serving Angel Tree a family tradition—a family ministry. Elizabeth and Grace knew the power of a simple gift of love in Christ’s name. One year, as a volunteer, Grace sent a note to another Angel Tree child:
Hi, my name is Grace, and I know how your kids feel, because my father's in prison too. I got your daughter this stuffed toy. My father is doing really well in prison, and you can too. And if you don't know Jesus Christ, you could ask the chaplain.
Joe still marvels at the ways God has restored his family, and he doesn't take their consistent connection for granted. "I think they held together really well because we kept our lines of communication open," he explains.
Joe came home from prison in 2000. That evening, when he was already at the house, Elizabeth walked in with her friends.
"She wanted her friends to meet me," Joe says, choking back tears. "She wasn't ashamed. She was proud of me, and she wanted her friends to meet me. And I think that kind of tells it all, you know."
Elizabeth was a high school senior when her dad came home. He waved her off to her last high school prom and watched her cheerleading routines at basketball games. Now he watches both Elizabeth and Grace from afar as they enjoy families of their own. And he does so with pride and thankfulness.
"We communicate every other day," he says.
THE JOY OF GIVING BACK
Today Joe is the national director of Angel Tree Sports Clinic™, a program that extends Angel Tree's Christmas ministry year-round and helps young people overcome obstacles through sports drills, fun competition, and lessons on perseverance—all with the help of top-tier athletes and coaches like Clay Matthews III of the NFL and Olympic skater JoJo Starbuck. Angel Tree Sports Clinic reached more than 2,000 children nationwide over the last 12 months, with events in football, cheerleading, ice skating, and more.
"[Coaches and athletes] want to give their time to these kids, and just show them that they're loved, instruct them, and tell them what they can do," says Joe. "... We're changing lives through all the programs of Angel Tree."
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