Richard Braceful remembers getting letters about his kids from his wife, Selena, during his incarceration. She would tell him how tightly they were holding on to their Christmas presents—even six months after the holiday.
Richard—now a Detroit, Mich., pastor—smiles when he thinks about this, knowing how quickly most children get bored with a new toy. But these were more than ordinary Christmas toys
Leaving behind six kids
Before prison, Richard had a dream job and a good relationship with his children, and he actively attended church. But then he started working a lot. Eventually, he quit going to church and Bible study altogether. In his mid-20s, when life became stressful, he turned to alcohol and began experimenting with drugs. Soon, he felt like he needed to be high to get through the day.
When he didn’t have the money to buy more drugs, Richard turned to armed robbery and carjacking. He was charged with five violent crimes at the age of 29. Selena was left alone to support six children, ranging from two to nine years old, as her husband faced a five-year prison sentence.
That was when Richard discovered Angel Tree®, a program of Prison Fellowship® that serves incarcerated parents by providing a pathway for restoring and strengthening relationships with their children and families. Approximately 2.7 million children in America have an incarcerated parent. That's about one in 28. Many of these children suffer heartache, loneliness, and shame. Angel Tree provides incarcerated parents with a pathway for strengthening and restoring their relationships with their children and families.
Prison Fellowship mobilizes local churches and community organizations to give hundreds of thousands of children a gift, the gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their incarcerated parent. In addition, many partner churches meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of prisoners’ families through year-round ministry such as camping and mentoring.
Reaching out from behind bars
When Richard found out about Angel Tree, he knew it would be one way to help his wife from a distance. After signing them up for the first time, he filled out the application again every year. Some Christmases, the Angel Tree gifts were the only presents the children received. Angel Tree took some pressure off Selena. “There was stress from not being able to buy gifts,” says Richard. “It relieved her of that. [She’d tell herself,] ‘I know this is coming. I know they’ll have this. Even if it was just for a season.’”
The gifts helped him stay connected to his kids, especially when he was incarcerated seven hours from home and went without a visit from his family for a year and a half. The presents communicated to his kids that he still cared about them and thought about them even when he couldn’t be there.
“The quality of the items showed love,” says Selena. The volunteers who bought the toys on Richard’s behalf “took the time to give nice things to the children,” she says. “I thank God for my family having the opportunity to receive gifts from their dad even though he was not in the home.”
Hearing his children’s reactions and seeing photos of them opening their gifts helped keep Richard going. “I cannot tell you what that did for me emotionally, and encouraging me to keep my head up,” he says.
Struggling with re-entry
When Richard was finally released, it was rough trying to become a daily part of the family again. There were some struggles, but Richard told himself he was relying on God, and his biggest problems were behind him. He got a job and even pastored youth at his church.
But soon, stressors and disappointment became too much, and instead of truly turning to God, he once again turned to alcohol and drugs for relief. When he needed money to fuel his addictions, he sometimes got it illegally.
Richard was charged with mail fraud in 2007 after he issued fraudulent unemployment checks from his workplace and pocketed some of the money. He went back to prison, but this time, he vowed to never walk away from God again.
Once again, Richard signed up for Angel Tree and sent gifts to his children who were still young enough to be eligible. His second incarceration was at a prison closer to home, which allowed his family to visit more. He also met volunteers from Prison Fellowship who helped reinforce the importance of relying on God for comfort and guidance every day.
Coming full circle
Richard was released for the second time in 2011. After feeling led by God to become a pastor, he launched a church in Detroit in 2012. He often shares the lessons he learned about humility, and clinging to God for the strength to face each day’s challenges, no matter how big. “I try to tell people, trying to live life without God is like trying to have someone work on your car [who] has never seen a car before,” he says. “They are just guessing, trying to find their way to what’s going on, and they have no clue.”
His children, now ranging in age from 23 to 30, are paying it forward as they lead an Angel Tree program at Richard’s church. “It was a really beautiful thing,” Richard says, “to have us come full circle.”
This article originally appeared here. You can find out more about Angel Tree and how you can participate here.