Eight-year-old Lucius Jenkins watched as police officers handcuffed his father and lead him off to prison. He didn't understand why. All he knew was his dad was taken away "and it wasn't playtime" anymore.
At first, Jenkins never wanted to talk about what happened. Recounting the story only brought pain and shame. But as the years went by, he learned it also could bring hope.
"As I've grown older I've learned that my story brings strength to others," said Jenkins, 21, now a student at Broward Community College, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and a mentor with Angel Tree, a ministry of Prison Fellowship.
His story, to a point, was not unlike others. Before his dad's arrest, Jenkins belonged to what he called an "average family" in this community on the shores of the Atlantic. Both parents worked for the local school district - mom taught preschool and dad coached high school football and wrestling. Jenkins and his two older sisters attended a private Christian school. Every Sunday, the family went to church, where his dad served as a Baptist pastor.
Then the accusations began to fly.
"They said it was his being a coach," Jenkins said. "There was students. He was accused of being a pedophile."
It wasn't until a few years later that Jenkins understood the nature of his father's crime. The family could have dealt with a drug conviction or some other run-of-the-mill accusation. But charges of a sexual offense cut them to the quick and made it difficult for the family to even mention their absent husband and father.
But shortly after his incarceration, Jenkins's father registered his family with the Angel Tree program, a decision that would have a significant impact on his family's life, especially his son's. Jenkins said if it had not been for his mother's faith and the loving care of Angel Tree volunteers, his life could have taken a very different turn. Instead, he is seeking a degree in physical therapy and devoting himself to giving through Angel Tree what he received as a child and teenager.
"He's been our poster child. He really is," said Nancy Anderson, prison ministry director at Ft. Lauderdale First Presbyterian Church and the Jenkins family "angel."
Anderson soon became a second mom to Jenkins, encouraging him and making sure he remained involved in the program, first as a recipient and now as a volunteer. And, as someone well versed in the effect a parent's imprisonment can have on a family, Anderson is keenly aware that Jenkins could have become just another statistic. The likelihood that the child of a felon will end up in prison is very high.
In an effort to break that cycle, Anderson and her husband, Richard, sponsored Jenkins's annual Angel Tree Camping trips, experiences Jenkins called "the most fun in my life." And the relationship between Nancy and Jenkins's mom, Angela, grew from sponsor, to mentor, to friend. Angela Jenkins also volunteers with the prison ministry, working with the newly established Family Embrace, a monthly dinner and support ministry for Angel Tree families. Her son serves as a mentor to the younger teens in the program. He also continues to enjoy camp but, now, as a counselor. He attends college on a scholarship provided by First Presbyterian Church and is working toward a 4-year degree in physical therapy with an emphasis on sports medicine.
For Jenkins to publicly share his testimony demonstrates a significant step in his emotional and spiritual growth, Anderson said. And his successes, like high school graduation and enrollment in college, are important for children in the same situation to see.
Once Jenkins discovered his testimony encouraged others, he welcomed the opportunity to share. Anderson said Jenkins's story serves as a standard for the children he mentors. He tells them that they have hope. He holds out something better for their lives. He tries to be a godly example to children who have no such role models.
Jenkins' life before his father's incarceration laid a foundation for his family. Although his father's arrest shattered everything he knew - the family had to move to a tough neighborhood and the children enrolled in public schools - its foundation remained unshaken.
Without the influences of his mother, their church, Angel Tree, his coaches, and a high school counselor, he would be a man driven by the anger he felt as an 8-year-old child whose dad was taken away, Jenkins said. He would not have graduated high school. He would not be in college. He would have ended up like his peers - an inmate, a teenage father, or both.
"My mom, she was extremely strong," he said. "She never let us know how hurt she was because of the faith she had in God. My mom is the strongest person I know."
Many of Jenkins' Angle Tree charges lead self-destructive lives because they do not have a parent, church, or mentor to guide them in the truth and hold them to a higher standard. Jenkins wants to be that influence for the kids and encourages other young adults, especially men, to become involved in the lives of prisoners' children.
"My mother did the best she could, but she was not a man," he said. He could not emphasize enough the impact a godly man can have in the lives of the Angel Tree children. "These children, no matter what, they still have incredible potential. Let's be their resource. Let's build them up."