Angel Tree helped incarcerated dad Chris break the ice during prison visits and build a relationship with his daughters.
Ensuring gifts are under the tree is a big deal for Chris. His mother was incarcerated when he was a boy, but his family told him she was in the hospital. All of a sudden, he was living with his aunt and uncle and wondering why he couldn'’t see his mom, especially around holidays like Christmas.
So when Chris found himself behind bars—and separated from his own children—he signed his two daughters up for Angel Tree®. Through loving volunteers, Angel Tree provides Christmas gifts for children of prisoners. The gifts come with a personalized note from their mom or dad in prison.
But Angel Tree is about way more than just a gift. The gifts children receive from their incarcerated parent can serve as a much-needed icebreaker during prison visitation, as Chris found out.
AWKWARD PRISON VISITS
Many people in prison have strained relationships with their loved ones. The realities of incarceration—physical separation, social isolation, the pain of having or being an absent parent—are serious obstacles to strong family connections and healthy prison visitation.
"It was always awkward to be there because I didn't know what I was supposed to say to him," says his daughter Christina, now an adult. "And I don't think he really knew what he was supposed to say back to me."
She's right. Chris says the conversations were stilted at times. It's a common problem for families visiting loved ones in prison: What do you talk about when you're sitting in a prison with guards listening?
That's why Chris was shocked when his daughters, usually mum, came in for their Christmas visit and burst out, "Oh thank you so much, Daddy, for what you gave us!"
OPENING RELATIONAL DOORS
It meant a lot to Chris that Angel Tree would help him reach out to his daughters and show them his love when he couldn’t be there himself. That display of love led him to start visiting the prison chapel. Eventually, Chris gave his life to Christ while behind bars.
He wanted to change from the inside out, but he needed help. So he enrolled in the Prison Fellowship Academy®. The Academy uses targeted curriculum, compassionate coaches, and restorative community to replace participants' criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and biblically based life principles.
Chris also continued signing Christina up for Angel Tree (her sister Daphney was then over 18 and had aged out of the program). He remembers Christina telling him, "Dad, I wanted to be mad at you, but I just couldn't. Because I knew that no matter what, you cared enough about me to make sure that I got gifts from you each year."
The door to a healthier relationship was open to Chris and his daughter. Fortunately, they both walked through.
HONEST TO GOODNESS FRIENDSHIP
"Eventually," Christina says, "we got to a place where we could be completely honest about our feelings and how we process the past." With that foundation of honesty, their relationship deepened during prison visitation and is now flourishing since Chris' release. These days, Christina says of her dad, "That's my best friend."
Christina is now married and works as an education consultant, helping her clients integrate personalized and digital learning resources. Chris serves as a pastor and helps Prison Fellowship® mobilize churches to take part in Angel Tree.
"For as much energy as I used in destroying lives, I want to use that in restoring lives," he says.
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