When Aaron* first met Tanya*, she was just a friend of a friend. They’d talk occasionally and then drifted apart. But years later, as Aaron says, “we kind of ending up finding each other again.” This time, there was a spark they couldn’t deny.
Aaron felt drawn to Tanya’s humor and spontaneity. Like him, she loved to laugh and enjoyed good food. She was simply “a good person to be around”—and they started going on dates.
“We’d do stuff together, stuff I never would have done if me and her wasn’t together,” Aaron says.
Their first date is a prime example: At Tanya’s insistence, they went pedal boating. Aaron remembers the way their feet slipped out into the water and how hard they laughed.
Another day, they went strawberry picking—another first for Aaron. But he wasn’t the only one experiencing “firsts.” When Aaron sent Tanya flowers—her favorite, tulips—he learned it was the first time anyone had sent her a bouquet. Thrilled, Tanya could not hold back the tears.
The couple loved trying new restaurants they read about online and spending time with Aaron’s three children. Aaron appreciated Tanya’s motherly way with them, and he was grateful for the example she became for his daughters. It wasn’t long before they had decided they wanted to spend their lives together.
THE SMALL STUFF
And then Aaron was arrested.
Tanya says she didn’t even consider that incarceration might mean the end of their two-year relationship.
“I really love him, and I have faith,” she says. “I knew that God was going to work it out. We all fall short.”
But not having Aaron around is hard. They had grown accustomed to sharing household tasks, including childcare. Aaron’s children are now with his mother most of the time, but they still spend time with Tanya. Tanya—who works a lot of hours as an insurance dispatcher—is frequently exhausted.
Likewise, Aaron misses being home—the fun adventures, but even more, everyday life.
“I just miss us sitting there watching movies, us with the family, and going to the park and water fights,” Aaron says. “Just the small stuff. I miss the small stuff.”
NEW WAYS OF LOVING
Aaron has been in prison for just over a year. After his first six months, he was transferred to the Carol Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas, where he enrolled in the Prison Fellowship Academy®. There, he began to learn about the Values of Good Citizenship™ like responsibility, integrity, and community.
“He has changed a lot in here, and I can see it,” Tanya says.
Aaron’s favorite class so far has been “Resolving Everyday Conflict,” and the place he gets the most practice is his relationship with Tanya. The couple talks every day, sometimes even twice a day. They love staying connected—but as in all relationships, sometimes things get tense.
“When he was out [of prison], if we would get into it, he would just brush it off,” Tanya says. “But now, he actually tries to get down to the bottom of it, like ‘Well, what bothers you? What made you mad? What rubbed you wrong?’ He tries to fix it as soon as it’s a problem.”
Aaron says that his old ways of dealing with conflict included arguing, screaming, and avoidance. But now he sees how important it is to express his feelings and listen. He says the Academy has helped him identify his emotions and has given him ways to deal with them. Sometimes this means calming down before continuing a difficult conversation.
“When it’s in the heat of the moment, you’re probably saying some stuff you really don’t mean,” he explains.
But no matter what, Aaron always makes sure he and Tanya eventually come around to a place of forgiveness and connection.
'He has changed a lot in here, and I can see it.'
LEARNING EACH OTHER
While he enjoys talking to Tanya on the phone, Aaron also loves staying connected through writing letters. Sometimes he includes little games he has made up—or even poetry. He creates cards for special events and sends pictures and memes from his prison-issued tablet.
“I just try to let her know ‘I’m thinking about you’ or ‘This won’t be going on forever,’” he explains. “Because it seems like we’ve been dealing with it forever now.”
Recently, Academy Program Director Darryl Brooks encouraged the Academy participants to write a letter to their partners expressing their values, goals, and dreams for the future. Aaron carefully completed this assignment, sharing things with Tanya they had never talked about before—hopeful that their dreams would align.
“It was just about really learning each other,” Aaron says. “Brooks taught us about expressing ourselves and seeing where we want to be in life, so we can see if we even equal up on what our situation is going to be—like where we’ll be at if I come home, what would be the situation, and where would we be trying to get to?”
Tanya was grateful for his letter. It was the kind of deep communication she had been longing for. And now she is even more convinced that they are on parallel paths.
'It was just about really learning each other.'
GIVING GIFTS AND SHARING DREAMS
The couple dreams about life after incarceration all the time. They imagine not telling anyone else that Aaron is home, just for a day—so they can savor time together as a family, just them.
Tanya dreams of getting married, buying a house in Cinco Ranch, having a few more kids. She wants to quit her job and focus on getting her business off the ground while Aaron supports the family. Aaron wants to learn to cook so that Tanya can rest when she’s tired and doesn’t feel like fixing dinner. But for now, they’re grateful for phone calls, letters, and visits.
They recently enjoyed a special visit: an Angel Tree® Christmas party. Family members filled the Academy meeting room as Christmas music played and string lights twinkled. Local church members had purchased gifts, and incarcerated dads decorated cookies, made crafts, and danced the afternoon away with their children.
Aaron had a special gift waiting for Tanya—a drawing done by another prisoner, based on a photograph of the two of them. The artist had heard Aaron talk about Tanya with so much love (and so often!) that he created the picture for free. Tanya loved it.
But even more, she loves the changes she sees in Aaron thanks to the Academy—and the way their relationship is thriving as a result.
“The way he is now, I’ve always wanted him to be like that,” she says. “So the fact that he’s actually being like that—I love it.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
'The way he is now, I’ve always wanted him to be like that.'