It’s not surprising that Derek and Molly Schaefer found each other: They both grew up in Vancouver, Washington, and attended the same schools. After high school, they realized they had a lot in common and began a relationship. Unfortunately, one of their shared interests was partying.
When Derek and Molly first got together, they were already heavy drinkers. Alcohol was their way to unwind and have fun—and, for Molly, a way to cope after her abusive upbringing. Derek had also gotten into hard drugs during a brief stint in the military. As a pair, he and Molly only fueled each other’s habits.
“We were functional alcoholics,” Molly says.
“We were doing the bare minimum really well, trying to raise my two stepchildren and our son Zyan amidst the dysfunction,” Derek adds, “but behind closed doors, the drinking was terrible. We would just fight.”
For several years, the Schaefers struggled to nurture a growing family while sinking deeper into addiction. Their unfaithfulness and abuse toward each other worsened. Over time, their relationship was tearing at the seams.
Recalling those years, Molly says they were “barely surviving.”
Their fighting continued to escalate. One night, Molly called the police. Derek was sitting in the living room about to get high when cops in full SWAT gear kicked the door in to arrest him.
A DESPERATE STRUGGLE
When Derek landed in Clark County Jail, he already had a history of violence and knew he was facing prison time. He also faced a hard truth: His life had spiraled out of control. His family was falling apart.
In jail, Derek stayed in contact with his dad, who encouraged him and offered to send him Christian books.
“I wanted nothing to do with Jesus,” Derek says. “I wanted to find some other way through this.”
Bored with limited reading material, Derek reluctantly opened a Bible to pass the time. He read about Job’s struggle in the Old Testament—a story he remembered learning as a kid in church. But in jail, Derek says, “it hit me way different.”
“It wasn’t just a story, it was a struggle,” Derek says. “It was what I was going through. I remember thinking, ‘Job didn’t even deserve it. I deserve it.’”
Alone in his cell, Derek fell to his knees weeping. He needed Christ in his life.
Derek started a Bible study behind bars and began mentoring others as he grew in his faith. He attended chapel services and surrounded himself with Christian community.
Still, Derek struggled with the separation from his family.
For some time, he did not have consistent contact with Molly and their young son Zyan, partly due to mandatory no-contact orders. Even after those orders were lifted, their connection was limited to phone calls. Molly wrestled with resentment toward Derek. Taking her child to see him sounded like a hassle.
Derek understood that the pain of their situation, and of his actions, ran deep for his loved ones. He savored every phone call, however brief.
“When I first started calling, [my son] was only 2, so it was limited … it wasn't full conversation,” Derek says. “It was a lot of just I love yous, and just trying to get him to know that I love him and I was there. But it was hard because he just didn’t get it.”
One day his son asked him, “Just because you’re far away, does that mean ... Do you still love mom?”
Every bittersweet phone call reminded Derek of how he longed to make things right.
'Angel Tree gave me access on another level that was super beneficial for everybody, including myself.'
A GLIMPSE OF HOPE
As Christmas approached, Derek went to the chapel and asked where he could get Christmas cards to send his family. That’s when he saw a flyer for Prison Fellowship Angel Tree.
Through Angel Tree®, caring volunteers deliver a gift, the Gospel, and a personal message of love to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. Angel Tree provides an opportunity for churches and organizations to extend the hope of Christ and enfold Angel Tree families into church life, starting at Christmas and often continuing all year.
Derek knew he needed to sign up Zyan for Angel Tree.
“I couldn't see him, I couldn't touch him, I couldn't hug him,” says Derek. “I could only tell him I loved him. Angel Tree gave me access on another level that was just super beneficial for everybody, including myself. And then him knowing that I’m still there, even though I’m not—that was really amazing.”
Zyan jumped up and down when he opened his Angel Tree gift from dad.
“He doesn’t get overly excited about a lot of things, so when he is excited about something, it’s a big deal,” Molly says of her son. “It was a really cool way for him to connect with his dad and feel like his dad cared about him and wanted to send him something on Christmas.”
By then, even Molly was excited. She could see Derek was making a real effort to be there for their son, even from prison.
'I never got to see my son the whole time I was incarcerated. God didn't grant me that then. God granted me a much greater moment.'
FAMILY, THE GREATEST GIFT
When Derek was released, he walked out of prison closer to the Lord and to his family—even though he hadn’t seen them in two years.
“I never got to see my son the whole time I was incarcerated,” Derek says. “God didn’t grant me that then. God granted me a much greater moment.”
On Derek’s first night home, his parents warned him that 3-year-old Zyan might be shy toward him. But when Zyan saw Derek, the little boy ran across the room and jumped into his arms.
“Daddy!” Zyan cried. “Don’t ever leave me again.”
Derek says it was one of the greatest moments of his life.
“It was just realizing too how important it is to be a dad, how much of a blessing it is,” says Derek. “It’s work, it’s stressful, and it’s frustrating at times, but it’s such a blessing. Just to sit there and watch him, it made all the waiting, all the struggle, all the tearful nights, just worth it. Because here he was, and it was awesome.”
Soon, Derek and Molly sought counseling to strengthen their relationship and help them build a healthy home. Today they are married and have welcomed twins into their family. They still marvel at the ways God has redeemed their family and their future. They live with their five children in Washington state, where they call Evergreen Bible Church their church home. Derek is working toward a certification in Christian counseling, aside from his day job as an electrician.
While ministry may be his calling, Derek counts family as his greatest gift.
“I want to use what God’s gifted me with,” says Derek. “[I] got my life back, which I thought was gone. I knew I’d get pieces of it back, but somehow, He gave me the whole thing back. It’s been hard work and a blessing."
*NOTE: Derek and Molly's son Gabriel was not able to appear in the family photo.