When Destiny's family first visited Second Baytown Church during Christmastime, Destiny's attitude was typical for an 8-year-old. She didn't want to go.
Her dad was serving a long-term prison sentence, and her family had just moved from Dallas to Baytown, Texas. Though Destiny's single mother did the best she could, the family didn't have much and couldn't even afford Christmas presents that year.
However, Destiny's dad had signed her up for the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ program. So, when she went to church and attended their Angel Tree® Christmas event, she received a gift from her father. It was one of her most memorable Christmases.
Second Baytown's simple act of love sparked a decade-long relationship between Destiny and her church community. And it all started with a gift. But that's what Angel Tree Christmas is all about: equipping churches like Second Baytown to serve incarcerated parents by helping them to strengthen their relationships with their children and families.
ROOTED IN LOVE
Second Baytown's love was contagious and timely, especially since Destiny's relationship with her father had grown distant. As a young child, she wondered, How could my dad leave us?
She says, "I was so angry at him. Like, I didn't have words. I didn't want to talk to him, but coming to Angel Tree made our relationship better. [Now,] I write him. I talk to him more. And, I forgave him. … I didn't want to go on resenting him for the rest of my life. And, [Angel Tree] really helped me out with that."
Not only did Destiny's heart continue to soften toward her dad, but through Angel Tree, she and other members of her family also grew spiritually. Her uncle started attending church and grew closer to God. Angel Tree mentors introduced her to Christ too. When Destiny was in middle school, she and her uncle were baptized on the same day.
'I was so angry at him. Like, I didn't have words. I didn't want to talk to him, but coming to Angel Tree made our relationship better.'
A LIFE TRANSFORMED
However, they weren't the only ones experiencing a life transformation. Destiny's father took advantage of the resources available to him in prison and turned his life around. Prior to his incarceration, he wasn't a churchgoer and didn't believe in God. When he first went to prison, he "was angry all the time" according to Destiny. Now, he serves as a lay pastor, sends birthday cards to Destiny, writes letters to the family, and even earned his GED—all while behind bars. He's doing much better.
Better days are ahead for Destiny, too. Because of her involvement with Angel Tree, she is connected to people at Second Baytown who are sensitive to her unique needs and who pray for her. They use their time, money, professional expertise, and connections to help her. Angel Tree volunteers from Second Baytown check on Destiny's family regularly. They don't limit their engagement with Angel Tree families like hers to a few Christmas activities. Instead, they've adopted a year-round approach that includes monthly fellowships.
"A lot can change in a month, and people don't realize that," says Destiny. "We wouldn't have enough money to have the lights on sometimes or enough food sometimes. I would pray to God, and my mom would get [money] that day." At other times, Second Baytown would provide gift cards for gas or groceries.
And, when Destiny needed help with high school graduation pictures, Melinda, a social worker and Angel Tree volunteer at Second Baytown, arranged for a donated photo shoot. Joyce, another volunteer who knew about Destiny's desire to travel, started bringing back souvenirs from her trips so Destiny could vicariously experience the world.
'A lot can change in a month, and people don't realize that. We wouldn't have enough money to have the lights on sometimes or enough food sometimes. I would pray to God, and my mom would get [money] that day.'
A CHEERFUL GIVER
Angel Tree also helped Destiny to enjoy new experiences locally. She admits she didn't know a bowling alley existed in her town until she went there with Second Baytown. She's grateful for the beautiful memories she's made with other participants and volunteers. Because of them, she has learned what cheerful giving entails.
Perhaps that's why she gives so much of herself. She has volunteered everywhere from an animal shelter to a local art center where she has helped adults who are mentally disabled—one of her favorite volunteer efforts yet.
And, she even painted a large piece for a baby's nursery. Lindsay, the child's mother and an Angel Tree volunteer, still has the artwork. Although five years have passed, Lindsay continues to gush about her interaction with Destiny.
Because of Second Baytown, Destiny has learned what cheerful giving entails. Perhaps that's why she gives so much of herself.
A SERIES OF UNEXPECTED EVENTS
Destiny expected those same accolades from her family because she was an honor student and loved school. She had good plans: Go to college. Get a job. Get married. However, all the attention seemed to go to the seven or eight youngest children—siblings and extended family members—who lived in her household.
Then, a series of unexpected events further dampened her spirit: Hurricane Harvey at the beginning of her high school freshman year, and the COVID-19 pandemic during her junior and senior years.
Destiny gave up on herself. Her grades fell. Eventually, she didn't want to attend school. When she told the Angel Tree volunteers she wasn't going to school anymore, they were disappointed.
She says, "Ms. Joyce was like, 'Destiny, come on. You have a good head on your shoulders. You need to start going [back to school]. … You're going to do good in life, I already know it.'"
'You're going to do good in life, I already know it.'
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
Joyce’s pep talk helped. Destiny reenrolled herself in school. On June 12, 2021, she walked across the stage to participate in her high school graduation ceremony. Next up in her educational journey is Lee College in Baytown, Texas.
"[I'm] one of the first people in my family to actually graduate from high school and go off to college and everything," Destiny says. "I'm really proud of myself."
Because of her accomplishments, she is on the way to making her goals become a reality. Destiny plans to become a teacher. She also wants to travel to California and New York. Returning to Angel Tree as a volunteer is on her radar, too.
Grateful for her Angel Tree experience, Destiny offers words of encouragement to other youth who are working toward their next milestone despite having an incarcerated parent. "Never give up," she says. "It gets hard at times. But you just need that person, that shoulder that's always going to be there for you. And Angel Tree was that for me. It gets easier. You just have to be patient and persevere."
'[I'm] one of the first people in my family to actually graduate from high school and go off to college and everything. I'm really proud of myself.'