Michele Purnell's living room felt empty. So did she.
Drugs and alcohol couldn't fill her enough; substance abuse and men had become her escape from reality. She had bills to pay, two young children to raise alone, and an incarcerated husband who wouldn't be home anytime soon. The other man she'd been dating had just moved out. He had left some shabby lawn chairs, an old projector, and not much else in her Florida home.
Nothing about the family's situation was easy to discuss. But one day Michele's son George opened up to his teacher, revealing that his dad was in jail. The teacher paid the family a visit to see how they were coping, along with friends from Calvary Church.
"When they showed up at the door, I was nervous," Michele remembers. "But somehow, I just couldn't tell them no. And a miracle happened."
A NIGHT FOR AN ANGEL TREE MIRACLE
Michele let their guests into the empty living room. They were a humbled family—one overwhelmed mom with two low-paying jobs and little hope; one son struggling with homework and fending off bullies at school; the other son, Jamie, aching from the void his father left. But the group of strangers who sat in Purnell family lawn chairs showed no judgment, and no reserve—just love.
It was the beginning of a mighty miracle in Michele, George, and little Jamie's life.
As Christmas approached, those familiar faces from Calvary Church returned. This time they came as volunteers with Angel Tree®, a Prison Fellowship® program that delivers gifts and the Gospel message to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents.
Jamie stood gaping by the open car trunk as volunteers handed gifts to him and George. The boy was in first grade at the time—too young to understand the demons his dad was facing, but old enough to appreciate what was happening.
"These are from your father!" said one volunteer.
The two boys erupted with delight. "How did he do that?" they said over and over. Clutching those presents was the closest thing to wrapping their arms around their father. After unwrapping his gifts, Jamie's favorites were his new shirt and a basketball. In the days ahead, he would dribble that ball until it stopped holding air.
Watching their Christmas miracle unfold, Michele stood nearby, choking back tears. Her empty living room had suddenly become full.
Clutching those presents was the closest thing to wrapping their arms around their father.
The tears still came more than a decade later as Michele sat outside King's Academy in West Palm Beach during an Angel Tree Sports Clinic™, where she was volunteering for the day. At a shaded picnic table, she recalled her story with fresh gratitude.
God came in through Angel Tree and just changed my life … I didn't even know what the Bible said. I didn't even know that the way I'd been living my own life was wrong. I started going to Calvary Church after they reached out to me, and the pastor would teach the Bible chapter by chapter, verse by verse. And the Bible just came alive for me.
The impact of Angel Tree and Calvary Church on her family stretched far beyond Christmas.
[My son George] said to me the other day, 'Mom, do you realize how much God changed our lives? We didn't have any money; you were always gone.' (I was always working, I had two jobs, low-paying jobs.) And he said, 'I remember after we got saved and were going to church, we had new furniture, you were home a lot more.' So, the cycle of addiction in our family was broken. Jesus Christ came in and taught me how to parent my children … because of Angel Tree and Prison Fellowship.
Michele went on to become the Angel Tree program coordinator at Calvary Church and has served in that role for 10 years. She also shared that, although the marriage with George and Jamie’s dad ended, he's out of prison now and knows the Lord. And Michele still insists that "God did a mighty work" in her family.
When those strangers showed up at the door years ago, it seemed like the worst time for house guests. Now Michele and her sons know it was perfect timing.
'The cycle of addiction in our family was broken. Jesus Christ came in and taught me how to parent my children … because of Angel Tree and Prison Fellowship.'
PAYING IT FORWARD
Michele pointed to her son Jamie, now 22, who hung on to that basketball from first grade until he tried football in sixth grade. He played his way through high school and competed for a year in college. All along, he was part of the family at Calvary Church and helped his mom run the Angel Tree program every Christmas.
"I guarantee you I would not have made it past ninth grade in school if my dad hadn't signed us up for Angel Tree that year," Jamie claims. "We would have lost our house. I probably would have been doing drugs just to feel better, and I could have been a terrible kid. But God came into the picture and made me feel special, feel loved, which is what we needed at that time."
And when Jamie heard the Angel Tree Sports Clinic was coming to his city to teach prisoners' kids some football, he showed up to coach. In some ways, it felt like he'd been preparing for this day for a long time:
I've seen [my dad's] struggles with drugs, and it's shown me that I can't let that happen to me. I talk to him at least once a week and have good conversation. … I just trust God and I'm thankful to have a relationship with my dad. I owe it all to Angel Tree, all the way. I'm an A/C mechanic now. I just bought a new truck, and I'm saving up to buy a house. I know for a fact I wouldn't be who I am, at all, if it weren't for Angel Tree.
'I just trust God and I'm thankful to have a relationship with my dad. I owe it all to Angel Tree, all the way.'