When April Harden received that first phone call from the Angel Tree coordinator, she was surprised. Her daughter's father had arranged Christmas gifts for the kids—even though he was in prison?
Yes, the woman on the phone told her, it's true. The program, Angel Tree® Christmas, connects incarcerated parents with their children through a gift and a personal message delivered by local volunteers.
April, a single mom and college student living in subsidized housing, was thankful. Money was tight, and extra presents under the tree sounded great. But, April says, the most meaningful gift was that initial phone call with the Angel Tree coordinator, Michelle Payette. The women just clicked, and their conversation lasted for two hours.
It was only the beginning of a powerful friendship.
A STEP OF FAITH
Michelle delivered the Christmas gifts to 4-year-old Casonna and 8-year-old Sean. She also told April that there was something else she and her church would like to do: help send Sean to summer camp.
Every year, scholarships provide a way for thousands of Angel Tree children to go to Christian summer camps, where they fellowship with their peers, build relationships with caring camp counselors, and experience the love of God in the great outdoors. This was something April couldn't dream of affording on her own, and she was floored by the offer.
"It was amazing just to have these strangers step in and care about my kids and myself," April says. "It was awesome."
Sending Sean to camp would be a step of faith. He had sickle cell disease, a condition that had resulted in 22 hospital admissions. Sean had never been away from home without his mom. But April decided to let him go. She didn't have a car, so Michelle drove. After dropping Sean off, the women prayed together all the way home.
That week at camp changed the family forever. Sean swam in the pool, learned new songs, and heard about Jesus around the campfire. The Gospel message stayed with him. A month after he returned home, he made a big decision: He wanted to give his life to Christ and be baptized. He told April he wanted to do this "because Jesus loves me, and I love him too."
After that, the family joined a church near their home.
Sean's faith wasn’t something superficial—it engulfed his heart. One day as he and April were driving, Sean told her that even though he loves her, there's someone he loves more: God.
"I was just taken aback by the sincerity in it," April says. "He meant that."
A SISTER BORN FOR ADVERSITY
As the family's faith blossomed, so did the connection between Michelle and April.
"She just grew on our family," April remembers. "She’s been so helpful and encouraging, almost like a life coach. It's been way more than … just the program."
April jokingly told Michelle that she wished she could have a camp experience like Sean—and Michelle organized a women's retreat. When April's mom died suddenly of a heart attack, Michelle was there to comfort April. And when Sean was admitted to the hospital in the fall of 2019, Michelle set up a desk in the hospital's Ronald McDonald room—a homelike environment designated for families of seriously ill children—so she could work remotely while providing daily support to her friend.
Sean grew sicker as the days passed. He had to be intubated, and the hospital staff told April he had sepsis, a life-threatening infection of the bloodstream. After a month, Sean went to be with Jesus. He was just 11 years old.
April's church and Michelle helped raise money for Sean's headstone and funeral. April remembers Michelle's presence during the service.
Michelle "was there, front row center," April says. "She was like Mama Michelle. She was definitely by my side the whole time in his going home celebration."
April hopes that Angel Tree Christmas will begin lasting relationships that provide families with life-giving support.
April has walked through many dark days since the loss of Sean. She knows she will see him again, but the pain of his absence is intense. Amid all of this, she thanks God for the way He brought Michelle into the Harden family's life.
"If you hadn't taken me those Christmas gifts, I wouldn't have met you through Angel Tree," April told Michelle. "Sean wouldn't have come to Christ, and he wouldn't be with Jesus right now. I wouldn't have made it through this without you and without my church. … I probably would have taken my own life."
Today, April is an Angel Tree coordinator at her church. Her job is to call families of incarcerated parents and arrange for the delivery of Christmas gifts.
April loves seeing the smile on a child's face when they receive their gift and message from an incarcerated parent. But her vision goes beyond that moment. She hopes that Angel Tree Christmas will begin lasting relationships that provide families with life-giving support—just like she has experienced with Michelle.
"The hopes are that the inmate sees that no matter what you've done … there are people out here rooting for you and your family," she explains. "The hopes are when the [parent] does come home, the family has a foundation in a local church. And then God just does miracles in their lives."
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