She's not afraid to admit it: There are times Amber Frost doesn't feel like going to the Sunday afternoon meeting once a month at Second Baytown. Sometimes she's having a bad day, or her two kids are acting up. But no matter what, she shows up at the church every single time.
"I make myself come because I know I need to be here," Amber says. "It's so nice to have a group of people who know what I'm going through."
The encouragement Amber receives means so much that she recently invited an unlikely acquaintance: the mother of her ex-boyfriend's first child. Things used to be tense between the two women, but that's water under the bridge now. And Amber knows that as parents raising their kids on their own due to incarceration, they both need all the support they can get.
'I make myself come because I know I need to be here. It's so nice to have a group of people who know what I'm going through.'
— Amber Frost
THE DRIVE TO DO MORE
Second Baytown's ministry to local families began over a decade ago with Angel Tree® Christmas, a component of Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ that has been strengthening family connections since 1982. Once a year at Christmastime, Second Baytown volunteers deliver gifts, the Gospel, and messages of love to local children on behalf of their incarcerated parents.
The effort blesses both children and church members. But Angel Tree coordinator Melinda Garcia knew the church could do more.
"There's obviously a lot of needs in these families that are ongoing throughout the year," Melinda says. "I was looking for what else we could do."
With the support of the pastoral staff, Melinda launched a year-round ministry to Angel Tree families that goes far beyond Christmas.
Melinda planned three additional yearly events for Angel Tree families: a back-to-school party, a Thanksgiving dinner, and an Easter celebration. She recruited volunteers to help prepare for the special get-togethers and sought donations to stock backpacks and Easter baskets.
But Melinda, a social worker, knew that families like Amber's need even more regular support to thrive. So, she started the Sunday afternoon meetings.
'There’s obviously a lot of needs in these families that are ongoing throughout the year. I was looking for what else we could do.'
— Melinda Garcia
ANGEL TREE YEAR-ROUND: LUNCH, LETTERS, AND CAKE
Every fourth Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m., about two dozen families gather at the church building to share a hot meal. When they check in, they receive a ticket for a door prize, which is usually a gift card for gas or groceries. Volunteers distribute letter-writing kits that include stamped envelopes, paper, coloring sheets, and markers. While the food is prepared, children often work on letters and drawings for their incarcerated parents.
At least one volunteer sits at every table, checking in with the families as they eat together. The goal is simply to build relationships. After lunch, it's time for "Birthday Club": The families sing to all whose birthdays fall within that month, and they share a giant sheet cake. Those celebrating birthdays receive a gift and have their pictures taken.
"What's been cool for me is seeing genuine relationships being built between the families and the volunteers," says Jeremy Clements, Second Baytown’s director of ministry development. "We're not just meeting a physical need. [The volunteers] really know these families, and we are able to celebrate with these families when their kids reach milestones."
'[The volunteers] really know these families, and we are able to celebrate with these families when their kids reach milestones.'
— Jeremy Clements
A SAFE PLACE
After the mini birthday celebration, everyone breaks into small groups based on age. There is childcare for the little ones and groups for children. Teenagers are separated by gender, and there's a special group just for parents and caregivers. Every group has a particular curriculum or Bible study they go through. And no matter what, there is time for sharing, seeking advice, and prayer. Walls come down, and participants often share their hearts in a way that they cannot elsewhere.
"We want them to know they're not alone," explains Melinda. "That's our goal message to them. We all have one thing in common and that's that we're raising a child solo, or we have a parent that's incarcerated. You're not alone. This is a safe place. This is a nonjudgment zone."
Melissa Villarreal, a monthly volunteer whose own parents spent time in prison when she was a child, says that she did not have this kind of support growing up—and that it would have made a huge difference in her life. She felt like the only kid with incarcerated parents.
"My family was like, 'Shhh, don't you tell,'" she remembers. "Everything was secret. So you had to bottle it up and keep it to yourself. And I feel like with Angel Tree, we give the kids opportunities … to have fellowship with other kids that are in the same situation … a time where, whatever you feel like you need to get out, you can just get it out."
'We want them to know they're not alone. ... You're not alone. This is a safe place. This is a nonjudgment zone.'
— Melinda Garcia
Angel Tree families' involvement often extends beyond seasonal events and monthly meetings.
"Everything that is available at Second Baytown, we make available to our Angel Tree families," Melinda says. "We try to integrate them as much as possible."
Angel Tree kids attend Second Baytown's summer camp, Vacation Bible School, sports programs, and Awana, a children's discipleship program. Some of the caregivers and recently released parents are part of Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered 12-step program. Angel Tree mothers have gone on the fall women's retreat, and some caregivers get plugged into church small groups.
"I don't think our church members know that they're Angel Tree families," says Jeremy. "They're just families."
This kind of regular intersection with church life means that needs are known and can be met. Second Baytown has helped Angel Tree families with utility bills and groceries. Melinda offers her expertise and connects families to community resources for job training, grants, and employment. And some monthly volunteers provide emotional support between meetings, texting encouragement and Scripture verses.
"Melinda is an amazing leader, and she pitched this vision of having a continued impact on these families year-round," Jeremy says. "We can hopefully walk with these families as their kids are getting older and give them a positive experience with church. These kids can grow up seeing the church as a place that loves you. We care about you; we are for you."
For parents like Amber Frost, that message is being received loud and clear.
"These people are taking their time and sacrificing what they have—or what they may not have—to love on our kids," she says. "Angel Tree has helped remind me that I'm not alone and that I have a support system standing behind me."
And it's this kind of support system that can make all the difference.
'These people are taking their time and sacrificing what they have—or what they may not have—to love on our kids. Angel Tree has helped remind me that I'm not alone and that I have a support system standing behind me.'
— Amber Frost