Denise Vermeulen of Lebanon has taken what might have been a story of sadness and shame and turned it into a story of generosity, compassion, and love through her leadership in a local Prison Fellowship Angel Tree ministry.
Vermeulen’s dad was a drug addict and dealer and was in and out of prison most of her childhood, as well as her adult life.
Christmas was often a hard time for Vermeulen and her family when she was a child. Her parents were divorced, leaving her mother to raise three young children on her own. Her grandparents provided as much as they could for their grandchildren, and she has many happy Christmas memories with them. However, her contact with her father was intermit-tent, often via a letter from jail, and Vermeulen only remembers only receiving one gift from him after her parents’ divorce.
“He was actually so big-time that he was on the TBI list,” she said. “The last time they got him, not only did he have a large amount of cocaine and marijuana in the car, but he also shot at a police officer, and they got him on that, too. I was 17 or 18 at the time, and he stayed there [in prison] until about four years ago,” Vermeulen said.
When she passed by an “angel” tree in the lobby of Fairview Church in Lebanon almost 15 years ago, Vermeulen was intrigued by the paper angels hanging on the Christmas tree and asked Janice Holden, who was overseeing the ministry at the time, for more information. She was surprised to learn that each angel represented a local child who had one or both of their parents incarcerated, and Janice was gathering Christ-mas gifts for them.
“When she explained it to me, I just started bawling. This particular angel tree ministry was something that really resonated with me.”
Vermeulen was so moved that she began to assist Janice with the program at that time and then, about 10 years ago, started serving as the church coordinator for Fairview Church. She continues to lead that ministry until today.
Angel Tree is a Prison Fellowship program that serves incarcerated parents by giving them a pathway to restore and strengthen relationships with their children and families. Through this ministry, children receive a gift, the Gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their mom or dad behind bars.
In America, 2.7 million children have a mom or dad in prison, which is about 1 in every 28 children, or one boy or girl in every classroom. Fairview will be assisting over 70 children, the majority of whom live in Wilson County, this Christmas.
Vermeulen encourages everyone to remember: “It’s not the children’s fault.”
“As a child, you should not have to deal with the consequences of your parents’ decisions. But these children deal with those consequences every single day. This is why it is so dear to my heart. I want them to know I understand.”
“To me, for the children to get a gift and know that their parent is thinking about them, regardless of the mistakes that they’ve made, that really spoke to me, because I never felt that way.”
“When you’re a kid, you don’t understand mom or dad is in prison,” Vermeulen said. “All you know is that it’s Christmas, and they should give you a present no matter what,” she laughs.
Terry Kemp, another member at Fairview, was help-ing Vermeulen hand out gifts on an afternoon at the church several years ago when he felt a desire to do more.
“These people–many of them would come through the doors and you could see that they were hurting–and sure we were giving them gifts and praying with them–but I told Denise, ‘We can do better than this,’” Kemp said.
Kemp’s community group got involved next year and helped to add the party element to the ministry. Now participating families come to the church to pick up their gifts and stay for a pizza party with games and arts and crafts.
“We have members of our class who look forward to helping with this every year,” Kemp said.
“It’s about the children, letting them know they are loved and sharing the Gospel with them,” Vermeulen said.
Churches, companies, and organizations will provide gifts to families and individuals in need through a variety of “angel” trees across Wilson County. Check with your local church to find out how you can give and what group they will be serving this year.
For more information about the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program, visit prisonfellowship.org.