I sat down with Mariah in a crowded restaurant last year and listened to her as she told me about the impact Angel Tree had on her life.
While she was helping out at Arbor Road’s event last year, she noticed a present with the name “Mariah” on it.
“It took me back to when I would see my name on my own present,” her voice wavered with emotion as she began her story. “My father was involved in a gang called Los Nietos.” Mariah explained how he met her mother when they were both teenagers. They had Maria when they were 20, and at 21, Mariah’s father was sentenced to prison for murder.
After her father went to jail, Maria’s mother spiraled out of control and began drinking. It became so bad that she had to give Maria to her grandmother, and she has been raising Mariah ever since.
She loves being with her grandmother, but without her parents, she always felt like she was alone. This feeling stuck with her as she grew older, and she was constantly haunted by it because she couldn’t figure out why her parents couldn’t be with her. “I thought my parents left because they wanted a better child and I wasn’t good enough for them.”
I asked her if she was ever able to reconcile these feelings or if she still couldn’t make sense of it. Mariah explained that Angel Tree played a huge role in helping her process life without her parents. Although her father could not be with her as she grew older, he never failed to sign her up to receive a gift from Angel Tree every year. “I couldn’t always be with him, but knowing that he signed me up for Angel Tree, and wrote me a letter asking me if I liked the gift was a valuable way of connecting with him.” Her grandmother told her, “Angel Tree does this because they care about you.” Her words didn’t heal all of Mariah’s heartbreak, but it certainly showed her that there were more people than she knew caring for her.
Maria added that she was also able to heal when she went to visit her father in prison for the first time. “I cried for thirty minutes, but afterwards, my father explained what happened and why.” She knew the truth of what her father had done and didn’t have to rely on her family to tell her half truths in order to protect her. Finally, she experienced some closure, and yet in the midst of it, new questions arose. She felt conflicted, “I couldn’t just tell him it’s ok because obviously it wasn’t.” She sat with her dad, searching for the right words and said, “I still love you and see you as my biological father.” This meeting was a huge milestone in her journey to understand herself and her parents.
Although her dad had caused her and others so much pain, Mariah still showed compassion towards him. Her gentleness after years of confusion is astounding and points to a strength that humans can’t find within themselves. It’s a strength and compassion drawn only from the Lord. He worked through her grandmother faithfully raising her, and the families who did something as simple as buying a gift and donating it to their church through Angel Tree.
Written by: Robert Heckert