Amber Bigelow grew up too fast.
Amber's parents divorced when she was just a baby, and she was raised by her mother, who Amber says struggled with alcohol. "I took care of her more than she took care of me," Amber recalls. Meanwhile, her dad and brother lived in a different city, suffering with addictions and unhealthy behaviors of their own.
Amber was a poor kid who struggled to make friends and mostly bonded with much older kids. "I never really fit in anywhere," says Amber, who lived in Minnesota at the time. "I always got good grades in school, [but] I was picked on a lot. I was kind of bullied."
When Amber was 12, she babysat for a woman who paid her in cigarettes and pot. Not long after, Amber's grandmother, who lived in Arkansas, stepped in. Amber moved in with her grandma and attended a new school.
Grandma had three house rules: "You've got to get good grades, you can't do drugs, and you can't have sex." But, Amber says, "I migrated towards a group of people that smoked weed." Soon, she'd broken all the rules.
When Amber was 15, her grandma sent her back to Minnesota to live with her mom.
METH: 'IT HAD ME AT HELLO'
This second go-round in Minnesota wasn't any healthier. One day, Amber told a much older friend, "Let's smoke some dope."
"I meant weed, and she thought I meant meth," Amber recalls. Even so, she tried the drug and was hooked. "It had me at 'hello.'"
Amber got pregnant at 16. She continued using, and after giving birth, she tried juggling school and getting high. The stress of teen motherhood led her to leaving her daughter with her mom so she could hang out with older guys and smoke dope. Often, Amber was away from home for weeks at a time.
When her baby's father tried to lower his child support, Amber showed up high to court. "I pretty much said, 'You can take her. I don't want her,'" she recalls. "After that I ran the streets hard."
For the next few years, Amber was stuck in a pattern of jail, treatment, relapse. To avoid prison, she went to drug court.
Amber was stuck in a pattern of jail, treatment, relapse.
For a while, it looked like drug court had worked. Amber completed the program. Then she met a great guy and got married. She and her husband bought a house, and Amber even went to college, receiving a four-year degree in criminal justice. After eight years of sobriety, her life was looking up—until she started drinking.
Amber worked long nights in a juvenile detention center. "I would get home at 7 a.m., and I would drink. I would be annihilated by 9 a.m." The daytime drinking lasted about a year. Then she started getting high again. And she wasn't the only one.
"My marriage was falling apart, my husband was getting high off pills—it was just a disaster," says Amber. "Once I relapsed, I was like, 'I'll just do this once in a while, not a big deal.'" But just like when she was a teenager, "once in a while" was never enough.
Looking to feel powerful and in control, Amber also sold drugs. She prized the extra money. And she told herself it wasn't harming anyone.
"I'm a good person, I pay taxes … I don't rob people, and I don't steal," she would say to herself.
But life continued to spiral. Cheating on her husband. Running with unhealthy crowds. Doing whatever it took to get high. Eventually, the law caught up with Amber, and she was sentenced to Minnesota Correctional Facility–Shakopee. By the time she finally landed in prison, she had left her husband and was exhausted from chasing her addiction.
Amber feared facing prison after years of evading it. "But there was also a peace," she says, "which I know now came from God—a peace of, it's finally over. I can finally change my life and start over and build something that I can be proud of again."
'I'm a good person, I pay taxes ... I don't rob people, and I don't steal.'
A HEALTHY NEW BEGINNING
Early in Amber's prison stay, a woman named Lisa came to share how the Prison Fellowship Academy® changed her life. "Once I heard [Lisa] speak, I knew," says Amber. "That's where I'm going." She filled out the paperwork right after.
The brokenness that lands men and women in prison, left unaddressed, perpetuates a cycle of destructive thinking and behaviors. Founded on the Christian belief of human dignity and redemption, the Prison Fellowship Academy seeks to disrupt this cycle. Using targeted curriculum, compassionate coaches, and restorative community, Academy participants embark on a year-long journey to develop and practice the biblically based values of community, affirmation, productivity, responsibility, restoration, and integrity. Academy graduates complete the program as change agents, prepared to take their places as good citizens in their communities inside and outside of prison.
A PRESENCE OF SERENITY
As a child, Amber had known about God and even attended church and Bible studies. "I knew He existed," says Amber. But she says it was more of a surface level, "You pray when you're in trouble, 'God, get me out of this and I'll be a good kid,' kind of thing." She'd never had a close relationship with Jesus.
The Academy gave Amber a deeper sense of Jesus—and who she was in His eyes. It also gave her a sense of community she hadn't felt before.
"You could feel a presence of serenity," Amber remembers from one of her first days in class. "I started crying, and everyone was there to comfort me and give me words of encouragement and pray with me. … I felt accepted."
The Academy had her at "hello."
Academy staff and volunteers made Amber feel like she could be herself. Their openness and honesty amazed her. "They make a very dark place very bright," Amber says. Through the program, she learned to see that God has been present throughout her life.
"I learned I don't have to change overnight," she adds. "I'm a totally different person than I was, but I'm not who I want to be yet."
Academy staff and volunteers made Amber feel like she could be herself ...
'They make a very dark place very bright.'
HOPE IS POSSIBLE, RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE, RESTORATION IS POSSIBLE
After her release, Amber got a job as a concrete finisher, working up to 70 hours a week. She reunited with her husband, who had also recently been incarcerated. They went to marriage counseling and have both been sober for several years now. They've been together going on 10 years, and they look forward to many more.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Amber helped out with her church’s food delivery program. "God's definitely moving during COVID," says Amber.
Amber enjoys her time with her teenage stepdaughter, whom she calls "amazing" and is proud to know. And Amber prays that someday she can reunite with her biological daughter. But she says she has to trust God's timing on that.
"If God can restore my marriage with all the damage that's been done," Amber notes, "hope is possible, recovery is possible, restoration and reconciliation are possible … there is hope for me, and there's hope for anybody that's in a dark place."
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