It was every non-profit event planner's dream: The Angel Tree® sports camp in San Antonio, Texas, had more than enough volunteers. Prison Fellowship® staff members and local volunteers showed up big to serve. And—most importantly—former Dallas Cowboys and college football stars were there, helping the 50 or so kids with incarcerated parents hone their football skills and feel seen and loved.
So Bethany Salinas, the mother of a baby and wife of a participating church's outreach coordinator, wasn't sure she really needed to attend. In fact, she called her husband that morning to say she probably wouldn't make it. But at the last minute, her mom offered to watch her infant daughter—so Bethany decided to go.
It was a decision that would mean the world to another mom that day.
TRANSPARENCY, HOPE, AND FOOTBALL CAMP
Throughout the year, Angel Tree sports camps give children with incarcerated parents an unforgettable day of coaching, encouragement, and hope in Christ. But, as Bethany discovered, it's not only the children who need hope—caregivers often need it, too.
While Bethany sat at a table sponsored by her church, passing out goody bags and information, friends from church approached her. With them was an Angel Tree mom* whose three sons were participating in the sports camp that day.
The two women started talking, and for the next five hours, they did not stop. They moved from the church table to the bleachers to the field, watching the boys enjoy the football clinic and sharing their hearts. They ate lunch together in the cafeteria. It was one of those connections that happens quickly and unexpectedly—and was clearly ordained by God.
Bethany learned that the woman had five children, all of them elementary school-aged or younger, and that her husband had been in and out of prison for years. Bethany could identify—her own husband had been incarcerated briefly at one time. He was even wearing an ankle monitor when they got married.
It's a personal story she rarely shares, but she felt God nudging her to be open. Bethany told the Angel Tree mom about her husband's eventual freedom and that God can answer prayers for deliverance and help. She also told her about the story of Paul in the Bible.
"I told her, 'If God can change his life, God can change your husband's life,'" Bethany says. "I told her that God can free him from the chains that are keeping him away from you, away from the family."
The woman admitted she had been losing faith—but that their conversation was starting to restore it.
'God can change your husband's life. ... God can free him from the chains that are keeping him away from you, away from the family.'
AN ORDAINED FRIENDSHIP
When the sports camp was over, Bethany helped her new friend load her ecstatic kids into the car. They were bubbling with excitement over their experience, and one of the boys chirped, "Oh gosh, I met so many friends!" By this point, Bethany knew how much that meant to him, as his mom had told her how isolated and lonely the family felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The women decided to keep in touch, and they have been in contact most days since.
"Every day I tell her, 'You're doing the best that you can. You're doing great,'" says Bethany. "I feel like God put me in her life just to encourage her to have that hope. She's such an amazing woman."
Bethany remembers how easy it is to live with a survival mentality and lack a sense of purpose. She knows this kind of cycle can lead to depression, and she wants to keep her friend from living there.
Recently, Bethany invited the Angel Tree mom to church and was thrilled when she came, bringing all her children. Bethany tries to be an ongoing source of encouragement to the family, staying in touch or meeting up in person when schedules allow.
When she reflects on the day she almost didn't go to the football camp, Bethany is grateful.
"It's so cool that God put us together," she says. "I feel like she was the reason I was there that day."
*The mother is not named to protect her privacy.
'It's so cool that God put us together. I feel like she was the reason I was there that day.'