At one point in Don Caballero's life, he seemed to be on the fast track to becoming a "career criminal." After his parents divorced when he was in middle school, Don struggled with addiction, insecurities, and academic issues. First incarcerated at age 18, he spent years in and out of jails and recovery programs, homeless and running the streets. He was in custody in Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland.
"There was a point in my life where I honestly didn't think I was going to see the age of 21," recalls Don, "and there were some days, honestly, where I wish that I didn't, because it felt so bad."
The police would arrest him, he'd be released, and then he'd commit more crimes.
"Every month, I was going either back to court or back in custody," Don says.
He once was on the run for about a year. During that time, the police were compiling more than 20 cases against him for 38 felonies. When he was finally arrested, he was facing up to 94 years.
A HARSH WAKE-UP CALL
During this time, Don's brother was in a fatal accident. While his brother was riding motorcycles with his church group, he was hit by a truck. Through a temporary bail allowance, Don attended his brother's funeral. That's when his life changed forever.
At the funeral, Don stood in the front of the church, about to speak to more than 500 people. Looking out over this huge crowd of his brother's friends and family, he suddenly realized what a mess his life had become.
"God spoke to me, and He was very clear. He said, 'If you were to die today, where would you go?'" Don recalls, saying how God spoke right into his heart. "And then He said, 'If you were to die today, who'd be at your funeral?'"
It shook him up. In the parking lot after the funeral, he told his ex-wife, "I'm done running from God. I'm done hurting people. I'm not doing this anymore." She questioned his sudden turnaround, but he felt forever changed.
The next day, Don participated in a motorcycle run for his brother while his kids stayed behind with a relative. When he returned home, the police arrived at his door to take him back to jail.
But this ride to jail was different than any other in the past.
In the back of the squad car, Don said to God, "I meant what I said, and I'm going to serve You the rest of my life." Later in his cell, he added, "And if I have to spend the rest of my life behind walls, I'm going to serve You."
'If you were to die today, where would you go? If you were to die today, who'd be at your funeral?'
A SEVEN-YEAR GIFT
His sentence was bargained down to 64 years, then 34, 32, and finally 16. Don was ready to jump at that 16-year offer, but his ex-wife, who was his codefendant, refused and said she wanted trial.
"They had like 32 eyewitnesses," says Don. "We were never going home." But by the grace of God, the district attorney came back with one final offer: seven years. Don gratefully took it.
While in custody, Don participated in many Bible studies and soaked up the Word. But the prison yard was small with few chapel offerings. One day, the chaplain approached Don and asked, "Hey, do you want to start doing services here? I'll have them open up the chapel for you." That's when Don started to get involved with Bible college correspondence courses. His relationship with Jesus took off.
During his sentence, he also participated in Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® program, where his three toddler children received Christmas gifts while he and his ex-wife (their mom) were both behind bars.
"It was nice to be able to do that," says Don. "It's not like just one parent was gone. We were both gone. And so to be able to give the kids something, it meant a lot."
While in custody, Don participated in many Bible studies and soaked up the Word.
After Don finished his seven-year sentence, he made sure to stay busy with healthy activities to finally break the "career criminal" cycle. He got involved in a church, eventually becoming an associate pastor.
He was also program director for ministry for people with a history of trauma. In addition, he co-founded a reentry service and helped design a custody program for Madera County Corrections.
Don is now happily remarried to a wonderful Christian woman who has helped inspire him to be the man he is today.
He looks back at all the pain and struggles of his younger years and sees healing, by the power of God. Don says his story is "an opportunity to help others realize that it doesn't matter where you come from and what you've done. It's about where you're going."