LANSDOWNE, Va. Chris Cleveland's 30-year journey with drugs began when he smoked his first joint at age 12, the year his parents divorced. By 16, Cleveland was expelled from high school.
"My formal education stopped there," said Cleveland, but his addictions took off. A self-described "highly functioning addict," he held down a series of jobs as a bounty hunter, bail bondsman and corrections officer while abusing drugs.
After Cleveland's mother died of cancer, he "shook his fist at God" and descended into a four-year cycle of drug abuse and arrests, blowing through his sizable inheritance, his salary and the profits from frequent thefts.
By then Cleveland was married and had a young son named Christopher. The family moved constantly, and Cleveland and his wife had volatile confrontations. To compensate, he sometimes gave his son lavish gifts purchased with stolen credit cards.
Though arrested dozens of times, Cleveland used connections and manipulation to evade prosecution, until his actions finally caught up with him in 2002. Facing 69 felony charges, he left behind his 8-year-old son and entered the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Living in 23-hour lockdown, Cleveland said that he spoke to his son only about once a year until Angel Tree reconnected them.
"Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree gave me a way to connect with my son when nothing else was working," said Cleveland. "Christopher knew his dad to be a real scoundrel, but I knew God had transformed my heart while in prison and I wanted to demonstrate that change to my son."
A program of Prison Fellowship, the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families, Angel Tree reaches out at Christmas and throughout the year to children who have a parent in prison. While Prison Fellowship works to reconcile prisoners and ex-prisoners to their families and communities, its Angel Tree program addresses the needs of children.
Just like some 275,000 other prisoners that year, Cleveland had registered his son to receive Christmas gifts and the gospel message delivered by Prison Fellowship volunteers - gifts designated with a tag "From Dad." When Christopher received a basketball, he soon shared a phone call with his father.
"All Christopher could talk about was his basketball," remembers Cleveland. "All of the expensive things that I gave to him when I was a mess weren't important to him, but that basketball from Angel Tree gave him hope."
Since 1982, Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree has allowed some 8.6 million children to receive gifts during the Christmas season giving them a point of connection with their parents.
Chris Cleveland was released from prison in 2006,
Programs like Angel Tree have lowered the odds of recidivism for the prisoner-parent while encouraging the parent-child bond - a bond that is tremendously important in breaking the intergenerational cycle of crime, according to Prison Fellowship.
"I know what it's like to feel scared and lonely at Christmas and wonder if my dad cared about me," said Christopher. "I love being able to do something special for these kids who are missing their mom or dad so much and who need to hear that Jesus loves them."
Since his release from prison, Cleveland has thrown himself into caring for Christopher, now a 16-year-old football player. He supports his family by running his own business, has launched a nonprofit ministry to support ex-offenders with re-entry tools, receives spiritual support and mentoring through Prison Fellowship, and has completed all of his parole requirements and earned a recommendation for full pardon.
This Christmas, Cleveland and Christopher are joining thousands of churches and individuals to help 390,000 prisoners' children across the U.S. know that they are loved and not forgotten by their incarcerated parent or by God.
To find a participating church in your area or to give online, visit www.AngelTree.org or call 1-800-55-ANGEL.