Helping Families Heal with Angel Tree
Young Isis Gonzalez told her mother that one of her dreams was to have a quinceañera—a special celebration for her 15th birthday.
But that dream disintegrated a month later when her mom shot her stepfather. That was in 1991—the same year Isis turned 15.
Isis says her mom, Paulina, was hardworking but had a drinking problem. Paulina's marriage to Isis' stepfather was her third, and there was lots of physical abuse. "There were bruises on her arms the day she shot him to death," Isis remembers.
She had seen other family members go to jail for misdemeanors, but when your mom goes to prison, it upends your whole life.
'I Couldn't Run Away from the Pain'
When her mother was incarcerated, Isis and her sisters went to live with her biological father and his large family in a small two-bedroom apartment. Their home was five hours from the Chowchilla, California, facility where Paulina was imprisoned.
Isis got to see her mom twice a year, and she wrote letters to her mother at least once a month. That's not a lot of contact for a young girl to have with her mother, especially when you consider how long Isis' mom was behind bars—27 years.
During that time, school was a bright spot in Isis' life. She was popular with teachers and a gifted track runner. "School was a safe place for me," she says. "I was not the best student in the class academically, but I was sure a good 'teacher's pet.'"
She was particularly fond of her fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Anderson. "She really believed in me and really cared for me." That care led to the dawn of a new dream for Isis. "I swore to myself that I would become a teacher like her when I grew up."
Isis says she was one of the fastest runners in Orange County, California, at the time. "But I couldn't run away from the pain I felt having my mom in prison," she says. "I lost count of the holidays we celebrated without Mom. The longer she was away, the angrier I became. I grew up with a lot of hate in my heart."
A Different Perspective
Christmas 1991 was better than the 15-year-old could have imagined.
That's because an Angel Tree® volunteer arrived at her door and delivered Christmas gifts to Isis and her siblings from their mom. Through Angel Tree, volunteers are mobilized to deliver a gift, the Gospel, and a personal message of love to children on behalf of their mom or dad in prison.
Isis was surprised and emotional when she found out her mom had signed up her and her sisters for the program. "We didn't have much money," she says, "and at that point, we sometimes didn't even want to talk to her."
But Angel Tree helped her see her mother in a new light. "I realized she really was thinking about us at a time as important as Christmas," she says. "I could appreciate how much she loved us and how sorry she was. And I believed God was working on her heart."
There were "accessories and a Barbie doll for my sisters, and a purple tie-dye shirt for me," Isis recalls. "When track season came, I wore that tie-dyed shirt to practice. And I would remember my mom."
A year before that Angel Tree delivery, one of Isis’ cousins told her about Jesus. "He said God loved me and had a plan for me, and that I really needed Christ in my life," she says.
She began attending church with her cousin and came to accept Christ as her Lord and Savior. "All the hurt and anger I had left my heart," she remembers, "and I was able to enjoy life again. ... I think God was preparing my heart for Angel Tree way back then."
He was preparing her mother Paulina's heart, too.
While incarcerated, Paulina came to believe in Christ too, through Prison Fellowship® and its programs. With their newfound connection in Christ, nourished by Angel Tree, the connection between Isis and her mother began mending.
Isis urged her mother to go to church after coming to faith. Soon, that was all Paulina did. "She preached and sang at that prison in Chowchilla, and she helped lead a Spanish-speaking ministry there," Isis says. "Other women even started calling her 'Mom.' When I would visit, and the ladies [asked if] I was her daughter. I was so proud to tell them yes."
Isis had more reasons to be proud. Since she was such a gifted track and field runner, she earned a full scholarship to Vanguard University, a Christian School in Costa Mesa, California.
"There I became the fifth-fastest runner in the 400 meter in the U.S.," she says. "And there I was able to achieve my dream of earning my teaching credentials and becoming a teacher, just like Ms. Anderson." While in school, she also met Christian Gonzalez, to whom she has been married for 20 years.
Paulina walked out of prison in April 2017. Since then, Isis and her mother have been working to rebuild their relationship. And while it hasn't always been easy, they've come a long way.
Isis says she and her mother talk every week, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, she visited her mom monthly. "I love her; I've forgiven her," Isis says.
Helping Families Heal with Angel Tree
Isis is now 44, married, working as a schoolteacher, and pursuing her doctorate in education. She also co-pastors a church in South Gate, California, with her husband. Along with others in the church, Isis volunteers with Angel Tree each year.
Last year their church hosted an Angel Tree party where children whose parents are incarcerated were given Angel Tree gifts. Afterward, Isis spoke to the children who were missing their mom or dad.
"And I just said, 'You know what? I was a recipient of Angel Tree, and just because we grew up without a mother or father doesn't mean that you can't reach your dreams or that your life is doomed. I know exactly what you're going through, yet this didn't stop me from reaching my dreams to become a teacher."
Isis says she volunteers with Angel Tree "so that other families can experience healing through Christ." She adds, "I want them to know God is ready to walk with them, just like He has walked with me for all these years."
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