One Mission, One Camp, No Distractions
Jeremy and his wife Traci know how incarceration can strain family ties to the breaking point. When Jeremy went to prison in 2011 for fraud, he thought his family relationships were forever shattered, and he almost lost hope.
During his second year in prison, Jeremy saw a flyer for Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ and signed up his children. He learned that Angel Tree® would provide a personal message, the Gospel, and a Christmas gift in his name. Every year, Angel Tree volunteers from churches and organizations nationwide deliver these gifts to hundreds of thousands of children like Jeremy’s.
Now released from prison, Jeremy and Traci help facilitate Prison Fellowship Angel Tree at Cornerstone Church in Arizona to help other prisoners’ families experience joy and connection. Their church also sponsors children of prisoners to attend Christian summer camp with Angel Tree® camping.
Prison Fellowship sat down with Jeremy and Traci to talk about serving prisoners’ families at Prescott Pines Christian Camp.
Prison Fellowship: What do you think people might not understand about the importance of summer camp for a child?
Jeremy Hart: This camp means everything to some of these kids. There’s a camper here who said to me three years ago, “Hey, I'll see my family when I get in the [prison] system.” He said that at 10 years old. This year, he’s a different person. He’s up there in the chapel praying with us all the time. He’s up there wanting to do worship. If people could realize the true change that this can give to any child who feels unworthy because they have a parent incarcerated—that’s the ultimate gift. That gift is from Christ, and that’s why we are here.
What makes camp a special place for an Angel Tree child?
Traci Hart: The kids get to get out of their element. It’s cool to see them in a rural setting where they get to see the trees and nature and just feel dirt under their feet. It’s really about touching their lives more than just once a year, because it gives them the opportunity to continue on in the Lord. They may be introduced to God at Christmastime, but we want to make sure they're feeling His presence with them all throughout their lives, all throughout the year.
JH: I love how God works when we are together with no distractions. When the volunteers share their testimonies, the campers know we make mistakes, too. We face challenges, too. Many campers will open up about their struggles and ask questions about what it means to follow Christ. And to watch them just find that unity and finally know that not only did God choose them, but that they're here and loved in this community.
How have you seen the value of community in a camp environment?
TH: Being a pediatric occupational therapist, I’ve seen a lot of kids with trauma-based situations or difficulties. I believe the socialization piece is a really important part of what we do. Giving them that love and attention shows children they are valued, and they’re treasured, and they’re honored, and they’re important, and that they matter, is what we're trying to focus on in our ministry.
JH: One of biggest things we do for fun at this camp is a giant water fight. We do it in a way that allows everybody to participate. In camp environments, you always have some kids on the perimeter. We don’t want them on the sidelines. We try to invite them in and make them feel like they are a part of something. What I noticed about this water fight is there was not one child, not one volunteer, who wasn’t soaked by the end. Something that simple can start to bring a community together as one.
Some of the older campers serve as junior leaders or peer mentors at the camp. What does that look like?
JH: One example is Isaiah. He first came to camp four years ago, and he arrived hesitant. He almost didn’t even want to come. After a day or two, he finally started getting involved. Our programming is therapeutic, whether they know it or not, so it kind of cracks them open a little bit. He just thrived when we showed that we cared about him. As he participated in everything, he also showed the ability to be a peer mentor. He took some younger kids under his arm. Now that he’s older, we have really encouraged him to keep serving in that capacity, and God is using him in so much more than just that. He has really become a leader out here. It’s incredible to see the fruit of what God is doing.
There’s another camper named Mario with a similar story. Not only does he want to lead prayer at the dining hall, but he also led a little worship on stage for the campers. He is absolutely on fire for God. I believe his growth and character have really affected not only his brother and sister, but probably his whole family back home.
How does camping fit into the mission of Angel Tree?
JH: We want to show Angel Tree children they have a family. We’re also here to give caregivers a break and to help bridge the gap for the incarcerated parent. If we can help nurture relationships and support the parent and the caregiver, then the child stands to benefit. And we often see the fruit of that in this environment.
Traci: Our goal is really to keep families together and help children know they aren’t alone. Whether it’s a parent behind bars or a child at home, that connection and healing is our goal and that’s our heart. It's just been amazing to help them bond together despite difficult circumstances. This population of children are overlooked in a lot of circumstances, and it’s hard on them when they’re missing their parent.
What would you say to a church that’s on the fence about getting involved in Angel Tree camping?
TH: I had no idea what prison ministry was like at all, and now I see how God has worked in my life through this experience. He opened my heart to this population of people who really need the Lord. It’s a huge blessing I never expected in a million years.
JH: Churches may tend to be a little hesitant, because they think [prison ministry] is more of a margin ministry, or they say, “We don't really have that population to serve.” But numbers show that they do. People affected by incarceration in their family might not be vocal about it. We want churches to know that the population is already there. I would encourage you to jump in, find two or three people that want to head up something like [Angel Tree] with you if God puts it on your heart.
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