By Laurie Fertello, Youth Program Director
Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree Program started in 1982 as a Christmastime ministry to the children of prisoners, one of the most at-risk segments of today's youth. In 1995, the program expanded to involve these children in summer camping experiences.
When Warm Beach Camp was invited to participate, we responded with a resounding "Yes!" not knowing it would become one of the most profound youth ministry endeavors we had ever undertaken. Angel Tree and Warm Beach Camp agreed to partner together in funding the costs of providing camp for these at-risk youth.
I will never forget the first bus full of Angel Tree campers pulling in to W-Bar-B Ranch. The excitement was high as I greeted and walked through the registration line with them. I recall the awesome week of camp and the joy in our hearts as we waved goodbye, knowing every Angel Tree camper on that bus had made decisions to follow Christ.
The powerful events of the first summer would be followed by many more memories. I was once asked to share a highlight from our second summer with Angel Tree Camping. To say it best, let me read from a journal entry:
JULY 2002 - I got a call from the dean at W-Bar-B Ranch this evening, asking me to come down and talk with three girls who have been struggling since they arrived. I introduced myself and told them why I was there. Laquisha was closed off, literally. Frustrated and angry, she had her hooded sweatshirt pulled tight across her face. Marika sat sideways, her gaze fixed forward. At every comment and question, she shook her head. Tierra was sitting quietly, a steady stream of tears rolling down her cheeks.
Once we covered the issues that brought us together, the Holy Spirit began to move. Laquisha poured out her heart and in one revealing moment, she blurted out, "Words are powerful!"
"Yes Laquisha, they are."
"You don't understand. The word ‘love' has the most power of all. You people say you love us and you don't even know us. How can you love us when you don't know anything about us?"
"Laquisha, Marika, and Tierra, you are absolutely right. Love is the most powerful word of all." I explained to them how it is that we can use the word ‘love' honestly, and where that love comes from. For the next half an hour we had a powerful conversation about the Lord. The Holy Spirit moved in their hearts, He revealed Himself to them and they began to understand. It is a joy to say all three girls made earnest decisions to walk with the Lord.
Tierra Howard's story continued as she attended Warm Beach Camp two additional summers. In 2006, Tierra was accepted into the Counselors In Leadership Training (CILT) program. As a junior counselor, Tierra was able to relate to the girls in her cabin and they poured out their life stories to her. According to her lead counselor, Maggie Parks, "God gave Tierra this opportunity to open up and grow spiritually - to understand that she, too, can make a difference, not in spite of her background, but because of it." God used Tierra's story, and three young girls came to know Him as their Lord and Savior.
We've had high hopes God would establish leaders through the Angel Tree Camping Program. We've prayed for and believed that one young person would step out and step up to the challenge of leadership, knowing others would follow. Tierra Howard was the first. Because of her efforts, three additional Angel Tree Campers have plans to attend the CILT Program next year.
I may not have been there during that first meeting, but I have no doubt: Truly, this has been a "God thing"!
Please pray for this vital ministry that is breaking the chains of sin that would lead these youth down the pathways followed by their parents, and instead, is setting them free to follow Christ. Your gifts to fund the Angel Tree camping program are always needed. To help, send your gift to the Camp marked for Angel Tree Kids, or go to Kids 2 Camp.
[Ed. Note: Some names in this article have been changed.]