Stephen grew up feeling overlooked and forgotten. As the middle child in a family with an incarcerated stepfather, an overwhelmed mom, and two siblings also needing attention, it was easy to get lost in the shuffle.
When his stepdad signed up Stephen and his siblings for Prison Fellowship Angel Tree®, a program that connects incarcerated parents with their kids at Christmastime—and opens doors to other discipleship opportunities—he couldn’t have known the extraordinary investment he was making in Stephen’s life.
Angel Tree® was a fixture for Stephen throughout his upbringing in Washington state—from childhood all the way to young adulthood. The program planted seeds of faith in him, instilling values and lessons he still cherishes. Now, Stephen is living intentionally, paying forward the love, generosity, and faith he received.
JOY AT A YOUNG AGE
As a little boy, Stephen was thrilled to hear that his stepfather, Shawn, had arranged for Christmas presents to be sent to his kids through Angel Tree. Stephen had high hopes for the festive scene surrounding the gifts he would get to open.
“I was super excited actually to go pick up those gifts because I thought he was just going to hand deliver them to us literally,” he remembers.
Although the gifts were presented by volunteers in his stepdad’s name, Stephen was still delighted. He and his siblings, Gary and Shawntya, also received much more than Christmas gifts through Angel Tree. They participated in Angel Tree camping, which threw open a door to a world that, until that point, they hadn’t known—one that included new friendships, fun, and plenty of paintball.
“It was quite the adjustment because, as kids, we never went out and did anything,” Stephen says.
Once he’d settled into camp as a third-grader, Stephen greatly anticipated it every year, continuing to attend through high school. At camp, Stephen could relax, be himself, and, most importantly, hear God’s Word and take part in worship services. It was at an Angel Tree camp where Stephen accepted Christ into his life.
“That just had a big, huge influence on me,” he says.
FACING HARSH REALITIES
Although his stepfather's initiative to sign up for Angel Tree helped Stephen draw closer to God, he still wrestled with his distant relationship with the man his mother had married. Stephen's brother and sister were Shawn’s biological children and he was not, a fact that was harshly brought to Stephen’s attention time and again.
When correspondence would arrive from Shawn, the first person to hold Stephen at his birth, the young boy eagerly looked forward to reading the letters—only to discover at times that they were written solely to his siblings.
One day, Stephen read a letter Shawn had written to his mother, complaining about having to write to the child.
“‘Last time I checked, I only have two kids,’” he recalls his stepfather writing in a moment of impatience. “It really bothered me,” Stephen says.
His connection to his own father was even less reliable. It wasn’t lost on Stephen that his siblings’ incarcerated father maintained contact, while his own dad, who wasn’t in prison, showed little interest in doing the same.
Stephen longed for that connection with his father. He left voicemail messages for him, asking for a return call. But no calls ever came, Stephen says, resulting in painful feelings of rejection that caused him to act out and fight in class. As a result, he earned suspensions from school.
“It just made me bitter; it embittered me,” he recalls.
Thankfully, an Angel Tree volunteer saw the distress Stephen was experiencing and offered hope.
'I was super excited to go pick up those gifts.'
A CARING MENTOR
Stephen was a sixth-grade camper when he met Elbert. The volunteer could see Stephen’s potential as a leader, as well as his bent toward making trouble, and approached Stephen’s mother about allowing him to mentor her son.
Elbert took Stephen to Seattle SuperSonics basketball games, put the boy to work in his backyard, and studied the Bible with him. Most significantly, Elbert allowed Stephen to unburden himself. The two talked about everything, and Elbert listened to Stephen without judgment. For the first time in his life, Stephen felt known.
“He gained so much of my trust, and I loved him so much for who he was and just how he cared for me and listened to me,” Stephen says.
When Stephen’s family moved to Kentucky from Washington, Elbert didn’t forget his young friend.
Elbert made the trip to visit Stephen for his 16th birthday. At that point, the teen was still making bad decisions, getting himself into more and more trouble, and arguing constantly with his mother.
The turbulence at home spilled over into school for Stephen, and he got into what he calls a “really bad fight” that resulted in charges being brought against him.
“I just remember asking the Lord, ‘Hey, can you please get me out of this? Have mercy on me,’” he recalls.
Stephen was ultimately spared from juvenile detention. Ready to turn in a new direction, he decided he wanted out of Kentucky and turned to Elbert for help.
“At that point, the only person I really respected was Elbert. And I just asked him like, ‘Hey, can I just move back? Because I really don't want to be here no more and my mom and I are just not getting along,’” Stephen remembers.
CHOOSING TO FORGIVE
Elbert’s stubborn fatherly love for Stephen came through again as he agreed to assume responsibility for him. Stephen’s mother signed guardianship papers, allowing him to finish high school while living with Elbert.
Once he’d returned to Washington, Stephen began attending Elbert’s church regularly, where he found community and a love for God that was hard to resist.
“Going to youth group and being around other kids that loved Jesus just provoked the desire in me—I really wanted to go a lot farther,” he recalls.
As one of the older teens in the youth group, he began teaching Bible study, encouraged by the church’s youth leaders and Elbert.
Stephen also became active as a camp counselor, overseeing the Angel Tree cabin. He realized he had a platform to speak to kids who were in the same situation he had been in, and he made himself available to help them.
“That was just life-transforming because I tried to apply the same principles that Elbert was applying when he was mentoring me,” he says.
Not only does Stephen credit Angel Tree with bringing him into an intimate relationship with God, but he also notes its role in allowing him to move past painful memories involving his stepfather, Shawn.
“I don't think that I would be able to have a relationship with him today if it wasn't for the Angel Tree program that introduced the Gospel to me and allowed me to come to know Jesus,” he says.
Stephen’s perspective toward his stepdad changed as he realized Shawn was a flawed human being in need of forgiveness regardless of the hurts between them.
'Going to youth group and being around other kids that loved Jesus just provoked the desire in me—I really wanted to go a lot farther.'
A GENERATIONAL LEGACY OF LOVE
One step after another, Stephen has made positive, lasting changes in his life.
After graduating high school, Stephen’s heart was set on playing college basketball, but God directed him toward majoring in biblical studies at Trinity Western University in Canada. He graduated in 2020.
He has now come full circle, serving his church as a youth director, and working as a development director for Go Outreach where he connects Angel Tree families with churches, helping them grow in their faith.
Married with a young daughter, Stephen is also employed in the insurance industry and determined to provide his child with an involved father and a stable home.
“I want to make sure that I'm fully present, and I want to support my kid in whatever that she's doing,” he says.
As for Elbert, Stephen notes that his former mentor visits sometimes, and smiles quite a bit when he does.
“It's just cool to see his joy,” he says. “He's just like, ‘Wow, this is my investment.’ And I can see the fulfillment in him from seeing the impact on one generation of a kid and just how that's going to impact the following generations of my family.”
It all started with Angel Tree which, as Stephen points out, “opens up so many other doors. Because you never know, a kid might go to camp and he might meet a lifelong friend that changes their lives.”
'I can see the fulfillment in him from seeing the impact on one generation of a kid and just how that's going to impact the following generations of my family.'