There was no creative announcement or heartwarming video the day Walter Blissit heard the news that his wife Roxanne was pregnant. He was newly incarcerated. Walter and Roxanne didn't know what parenting while separated would look like—but they were determined to make it work.
STRUGGLING FOR BREATH
For Roxanne, new motherhood felt like drowning.
"It was a blur," she says. "It's the feeling of when a wave comes, and you're struggling … you're trying to breathe. And then when you breathe, then another big wave comes, but you're too into it to know that you're drowning."
The responsibilities of solo motherhood overwhelmed her, but Roxanne persevered. She took their daughter Zoey to visit Walter as much as she could. They talked on the phone, too. Roxanne was determined that Zoey would have a good relationship with her father.
"[I would] always speak highly of him in front of her," Roxanne says.
LONGING FOR HOME
Walter, meanwhile, was grieving all of Zoey's "firsts" he was missing. He had been reading the Bible and longed to impart his values to her as she grew. Walter was eager to learn how to be a dad through daily practice. And he also struggled with not being able to provide materially for his family.
He tried to redeem the time in prison. He read voraciously, worked out, and took classes. Walter became certified as a personal trainer, and then got his HVAC certification. He wanted to be ready to work as soon as he was released. But staying busy couldn't replace being present in his family's life, and Walter missed them intensely.
Roxanne was determined that Zoey would have a good relationship with her father.
COUNTING THE MONTHS UNTIL ANGEL TREE
When Walter first heard about Angel Tree® Christmas—a way for incarcerated parents to provide a gift for their children—he was skeptical. Would it really be a nice present, something Zoey would like? But when he saw how much Roxanne appreciated the Christmas delivery, he was convinced—this was something special.
Walter began marking time around the Angel Tree Christmas calendar.
"Around August, they actually start for you to be able to sign up," Walter says. "And so, I would make sure that I would sign up early because I know that my daughter looks forward to the present from Dad. It helped the time pass when I knew August was coming up and then … four or five months after that, we have Christmas."
'I would make sure that I would sign up early because I know that my daughter looks forward to the present from Dad.'
After the first year, the sponsoring church began to hold Christmas parties instead of doing home deliveries. Roxanne loved the chance to go and spend time with other families in their situation.
"I was always excited … because you're longing for that interaction, for some kind of connection," she says. "There's so few moments where you can feel like a normal family."
The parties grew bigger every year, and as Zoey got older, she would remember the previous year's celebration and ask about the next one. Angel Tree Christmas became a constant on the family calendar, part of a rhythm that held the Blissits together. And for Walter, Angel Tree Christmas provided a sense of being able to support his family in a situation where his hands usually were tied.
"It felt almost like I was able to provide that gift," he says. "I wasn't able to contribute at any other time, so that was pretty cool. It was something we could all get involved with and then look forward to."
'You're longing for that interaction, for some kind of connection. There's so few moments where you can feel like a normal family.'
PARENTING ON THE OTHER SIDE
Walter was released in October 2019, and the family lives together in San Jose, California. Walter was able to find employment right away, first as a driver for FedEx and now as an HVAC technician. Over the past year and a half, Walter has been learning how to be a day-to-day dad. He takes 9-year-old Zoey fishing and hiking, and they traveled together to visit his family in Michigan, where Zoey met some of her cousins for the first time.
But parenting isn't without its challenges. Playing dolls—Zoey's favorite pastime—doesn't come naturally to Walter. He's still trying to get Zoey to relate to him as someone she respects, not just the fun guy she visited periodically. And Zoey is still adjusting to having him around.
Roxanne and Walter see the ways Walter's incarceration impacted Zoey. There were times she cried at school because she missed her daddy. While they regret the pain she endured, they believe it helped shape her into the empathetic, caring child that she is.
"She's very trusting and so sensitive," Roxanne says. "She just wants everyone to be happy."
Zoey misses going to Angel Tree Christmas parties now that her dad is home—but she received a special gift last November: a baby sister named Zuri.
Zoey has jumped into the big sister role with enthusiasm. One of her favorite activities is playing the piano to entertain little Zuri.
Over the past year and a half, Walter has been learning how to be a day-to-day dad.
The Blissits have dreams for the future—buying a house, hopefully with a pool in a backyard where they can grill out and splash around. But they're also committed to helping families who are in the situation they once knew so well.
"We don't want to forget all the people who contributed and helped us get this far, because the smallest gestures … will mentally fuel you and keep you going," Roxanne says. "When we get ourselves on our feet, we want to come 360 and return the favor. That's a value we want to instill in Zoey."
For now, they're working hard at loving one another and adjusting to living life together. Thankfully, their years of counting months apart are a thing of the past.
'We don't want to forget all the people who contributed and helped us get this far … When we get ourselves on our feet, we want to come 360 and return the favor. That's a value we want to instill in Zoey.'