Pregnant, 15, and the oldest of six kids in a crowded Detroit home, Charnell Scott could feel the weight of the world pressing down on her shoulders. When her baby girl became the seventh child in the household, a sense of duty and pride kept Charnell going—but it also kept her from asking for assistance. When things got tight, she started stealing clothes and food to help her family survive.
It wasn't long before she got caught. Charnell was 18 the first time she went to jail.
'WAS IT REALLY WORTH IT?'
Over the next 17 years, Charnell got married, had five more children, and continued to shoplift. She didn't need to steal anymore, since her husband was providing for the family, but she wanted to give her kids gifts she couldn't afford, like expensive Christmas toys.
She was arrested for shoplifting three more times, eventually leading to a two-year prison sentence.
Charnell's children ranged from ages 4 to 19 when she was incarcerated. The younger kids didn't understand why Mommy was going away. The older ones were angry. For the first time, Charnell asked herself questions like,
What have I done? Was stealing really worth it, now that I'm missing holidays and birthdays and helping with homework?
While in prison, "in order to survive, I had to go to church and get into activities," she said. She signed up for an early version of the program that is now the Prison Fellowship Academy®. The Academy uses targeted curriculum, compassionate coaches, and restorative community to replace participants’ criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and biblically based life principles. Graduates complete the year-long program as change agents and good citizens inside and outside of prison.
The next two years transformed Charnell's heart and mind.
She didn't need to steal anymore, but she wanted to give her kids gifts she couldn't afford.
LEARNING HOW TO CHANGE
Charnell and the other women in the program became fast friends. Surrounded by safe relationships, Charnell began reflecting on her decisions. She didn't want to go back to her old life, but she didn't know how to change.
Prison Fellowship®'s program and volunteers helped her see that she was too proud to ask for help. Once Charnell realized asking for help was not a sign of weakness but a way to improve, she was ready to learn new habits. During one exercise, the women were encouraged to "play the tape out" when making decisions, predicting specific results of their actions beforehand:
What happens if you let the whole tape play out after your decision? What will the consequences be?
Charnell had never thought this way. Her desire to make her kids feel extra special blinded her from seeing the consequences of her decisions. Instead of helping her children, stealing harmed them by separating them from their mother.
Armed with a better way of thinking, she did everything she could to stay close to her children. Holidays were especially difficult, since they reminded Charnell about the Christmas gifts she had stolen over the years.
Then she heard about Angel Tree®.
Her desire to make her kids feel extra special blinded her from seeing the consequences of her decisions. Her stealing harmed them by separating them from their mother.
ANGEL TREE BUILDS FAMILIES
Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship, delivers gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. Typically, a volunteer hand-delivers the gift, along with a personal note from the parent and a message of God's love. The facility Charnell was in allowed families to join prisoners inside so parents could give gifts directly to their children.
"Wow … Angel Tree!" Charnell says. "It makes you feel like you're home when you’re not."
Before Angel Tree, she spent many days mourning the separation from her children. But on this day with her family, there were "no tears—just happiness and laughter," Charnell remembers. "That day was a powerful moment in my children's lives." They were given gifts like handmade quilts, T-shirts, and Teddy bears. For Charnell, that day was the gift of a lifetime.
"[Angel Tree] builds families," Charnell says. "It builds bridges."
Charnell continued to stay involved in her kids' lives. Her husband dialed her into conferences with their children's teachers so she could feel connected and provide input on their education.
There were 'no tears—just happiness and laughter.'
CHARNELL AND HER FAMILY TODAY
After her release in 2012, Charnell found a good job catering events and was promoted several times, eventually becoming a manager. But after sustaining a serious ankle injury that required surgery, she had to leave that job. Fortunately, her husband provides for the family—and this time around, she didn't feel tempted to risk everything by shoplifting.
Today, Charnell caters on the side and spends most of her time with her grandkids. After missing several years with her children, she said, "I'm not planning on missing a single beat of my grandchildren's lives."
Though most of her kids are adults, they still have their Angel Tree gifts. Her youngest, now 12, received a stuffed bear he named Berry. "Berry's still holding on," Charnell chuckles. "I still have to stitch him up from time to time."
When Charnell sees Berry, she's reminded to keep making the right choices and keep "playing the tape out."
After missing several years with her children, she said, 'I'm not planning on missing a single beat of my grandchildren's lives.'