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Judy-MillsWhen her mother went to prison, 16-year-old Michelle Ward became the sole caregiver of four siblings; the youngest was six weeks old. Rather than turn her siblings over to the state, Michelle struggled to hold the family together.

“It was really hard,” explains Michelle, who dropped out of high school and worked the midnight-to-eight shift at the Waffle House. “But when I met Judy, that changed.”

Snapshot of Joy: Michelle Ward
Judy Mills, a member of Bethany First Church of the Nazarene, invited Michelle and her siblings to their church’s Angel Tree® Christmas party, a Prison Fellowship program that reaches out to the children of inmates during the holidays. After the initial visit, they kept coming.

After the initial visit, they kept coming.

“The first couple of years, Angel Tree presents were the only presents we got,” says Michelle. “Angel Tree gave [the younger children] something to look forward to. And when you’re a child going to visit a parent in prison, there’s not a whole lot to look forward to.”

Angel Tree is a Prison Fellowship program dedicated to serving the children of inmates. While the volunteerdriven program continues in its original mission of delivering Christmas gifts and the gospel, it has expanded to include year-round mentorship.

Despite the initial Christmas gifts, Michelle had many barriers to overcome. According to another volunteer, “She was mad at God for quite a while. Showing her and her family love over an extended period of time, that’s what drew her in.” And that’s just what Judy and the other volunteers did—by sponsoring Christmas parties, Thanksgiving feasts, and summer Angel Tree camps. They even helped Michelle finish her GED and successfully complete nursing school.

Today, Michelle is an RN in charge of the oncology unit at a hospital. When she shows up at church on Sunday beside her own four children, she wears her scrubs.

“She’s one of our best success stories,” Judy beams.

Judy and Larry Mills’ have witnessed many transformations like Michelle’s, as they have actively participated in Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree ministry through Bethany First Church of the Nazarene. Step into their kitchen in Oklahoma City, and you’ll see a refrigerator plastered with photographs of the children they adore—more than 60 of them. Only two of the kids on the refrigerator are the Mills’ by birth. The rest are Angel Tree children whom they and their church have committed to walk with through college.

Bethany First Church began participating in Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program with Christmas parties, but its efforts grew to include birthday cookies, summer camps, back-to-school shopping, and everyday love, like helping a teenager complete a job application.

Judy retired early to better serve in the church’s outreach and to minister to her Angel Tree kids, but she considers it no sacrifice. “I love these children,” she explains. “Sometimes they come over to my house and they see their pictures up there, right along with my kids. They are stunned! They can’t believe it.”

“Sometimes they come over to my house and they see their pictures up there, right along with my kids. They are stunned!”

Snapshot of Discovery: Nick Miller*
Judy is a little sentimental when it comes to the picture of Nick Miller at his first Angel Tree party. The threeyear- old peers shyly at the camera, arms wrapped around his mother’s leg.

Nick’s mom, Belinda*, initially asked for a volunteer to help her make the long trip to visit her husband in prison. Soon after that year’s Angel Tree Christmas party, Judy picked up Belinda, Nick, and his four-year-old sister, Keely*. About halfway into the five-hour trip, doubt overcame Judy. She thought, “God, what business do I have taking two little children to a maximum-security prison? These children are going to be miserable.” When they got to the prison, an officer patted Belinda down, checked her shoes, and made the children take their shoes off also. At last the barred gates opened. The frightened children clung to their mother. “You couldn’t have gotten a straw between them, they were so scared,” remembers Judy.

As the officer, Belinda, Nick, and Keely vanished from sight, Judy was left alone pacing and petitioning her Father in heaven. Later, Judy heard some noise and looked up. Nick was coming around the corner, and this time he was not even holding his mother’s hand; he was bouncing. With all the air in his small lungs he began to yell, “I’ve got a daddy! I’ve got a daddy! I’ve got a daddy!”

He ran over to Judy and took her hands while she struggled to restrain her tears. “Did you know I’ve got a daddy?” he asked proudly. Judy got down on her knees and hugged him and said, “Oh, yes, Nick! You have a daddy, and he loves you very much.”

Nick has made an even greater discovery—that he also has a heavenly Daddy whose love surpasses any other.

That day Nick discovered that he had a father who loved him. But in the eight years since then, through the ongoing work of Angel Tree, Nick has made an even greater discovery—that he also has a heavenly Daddy whose love surpasses any other.

Around the Kitchen Table
Tonight, platters of food line the countertop, as several of the Mills’ children join them for a cookout. As the evening winds down, just a few of them sit around her kitchen table, eating ice cream and brownies. Laughter and hope float around the table. When at last they go, Judy points out yet more snapshots of the children she loves. There’s John, who’s turned his life around from addiction. There’s Sasha, who dreamed of becoming an attorney to help get her dad out of prison. She talks of them all until late in the night. Together, they tell a story of need intertwined with the compassion of volunteers. They compose a mosaic of mercy that only God could have pieced together.

Nick has made an even greater discovery—that he also has a heavenly Daddy whose love surpasses any other.

CATHERINE LARSON is a senior writer and editor for BreakPoint. She is also the author of As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda released in 2009 from Zondervan. She and her husband, Mark, and son, Luke, live in Northern Virginia

 

More churches and volunteers are needed to deliver love to Angel Tree children like Michelle and Nick. To learn more, visit www.angeltree.org.

*Note: Names in this piece were changed to protect their real identities.