WAXAHACHIE

Shane Henry said he has always considered himself an all-American guy. He often found success, whether professionally or personally, and is undoubtedly well-educated, well-spoken and well-liked in his community.

While a student at Tarleton State University, Henry received the Trogdon Individual Service Award in 2007 and then the John Tarleton Spirit Award two years later. Both as prestigious an award as a Tarleton student can receive.

He sat on the Tarleton Alumni Association board of directors, was president of the Student Government Association from 2008-09 and regularly led charitable events as a member of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity.

Henry then pursued an even-higher education and graduated with a masters degree in education from the University of North Texas in May 2012. He had a dream car and was near a life-changing promotion.

If there was an opportunity to volunteer for the less fortunate, lead a group of students or assist in organizing campus activities — Henry was the man for the job.

A "devastating" decision to get behind the wheel after one too many then set his life on a new course. It also opened his eyes to an entirely new group of people in need, who he hopes to help the Waxahachie community rally around this holiday season.

To understand the true goal behind his version of the Angel Tree that will benefit 33 children with parents who are currently incarcerated, Henry's story must begin in early October 2012.

It was then that his vehicle struck an SUV in a Dallas suburb. There were five passengers inside. Two were pronounced dead at an area hospital. He was ultimately charged with intoxication assault and intoxication manslaughter and sentenced to five years in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility.

Henry recalled his attorney stating the criminal proceedings would be in a "holding pattern" for about three years, adding he could "either lay down and give up, or you’re like ‘I have got to live and do something better and make a difference now.’”

Henry added, “You hit that moment where you are like ‘I am such a bad person. You hit that metal health moment where it is ok not to be ok right now.”

With his lawyer's advice in mind, Henry decided to choose the latter and opened the Crooked Creek Farms antique store, which is now closed, and Fresh Market Coffee in 2014 in Waxahachie.

Henry was ultimately incarcerated in Hondo, Texas outside of San Antonio in 2015. While inside, Henry's family worked tirelessly to ensure Fresh Market coffee remained open so he could retake the reins upon his release.

He said the transition from Mr. TSU to the Torres unit was rough, both mentally and physically.

“In the Texas prison system, everyone has a job,” he recalled. “These men may be in the kitchen for eight hours a day from midnight to 8 a.m. They would get off work and come to the schoolhouse and peer on a one-on-one basis with a student that needed help to get their GED, just because they knew they needed it.”

Henry, however, said he was determined not to be pitiable on himself.

“When I got into the prison system in Texas, it became 'What can I do in the three years that I am going to be here to make it better?'” he said. “What can I do to be impactful and how can I use this opportunity to learn? That is kind of how my parents raised me.”

Henry said he started a volunteer GED program at his prison to help other inmates there with their education. He relayed that most of the incarcerated men in the prison didn’t have their GED.

He estimated that 12 men out of the 1,300 assigned to his unit had taken at least one college course. Henry quickly recognized the need for a quality education amongst the inmates and knew it was his opportunity to help. He also explained the prison system virtually had its own school district.

Henry said he would use things common to the inmates to connect them better to the curriculum, such as presenting mathematical equations in the form of "you have $80 in the commissary, how many items can you purchase?"

“Graduation numbers skyrocketed," he recalled. "The program became so successful that we had principals from other units coming in and take it statewide and are implementing it now.”

“It became a daily challenge to get to know the men that I was incarcerated with and to find out their backgrounds and their stories and their lives,” he continued. “Honestly, it became a passion because a lot of them didn’t have the same opportunities that I did.”

Henry said his mother calls his desire to help people a “wolf mentality.”

Henry then began to volunteer with the TDCJ about eight months into his sentence, speaking publicly to youth about life decisions and often sharing his story in states such as Kentucky and Detroit, as well as almost every high school in San Antonio.

“I traveled to area high schools, and I spoke to large auditoriums full of high school students about going from making a six-figure salary to sleeping with 63 men in a room,” he recalled.

He said the effects of telling his story have been profound.

“I remember a little girl coming up to me afterward with tears in her eyes,” he recalled. “She says ‘My dad has been locked up my whole life and I have never been able to talk to anyone about it.' She was like ‘People today are talking about you. I have been able to tell my friends that is where my dad is.’”

“That is one of those moments if, for no other reason, this little girl was worth it for me to tell my story,” he stated.

His interaction with that high school girl lingered, later igniting his desire to construct an Angel Tree inside Fresh Market Coffee that would re-connect inmates with their families.

The effort is through Prison Fellowship, which happens to be the original organization that launched the first Angel Tree in 1982. The program was started by former prisoner Mary Kay Beard, who served six years of her 22-year sentence for burglary, grand larceny and robbery.

In 2001, 14,598 churches across the country delivered gifts to 612,187 prisoners' children. According to crosswalk.com, approximately 27 percent of all children of incarcerated parents in the United States annually receive gifts through the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program.

“The cool thing about the prison angel system is all they do is pair you up with the relative that will take care of them,” he said. “They give you the child’s name, age, an interest and they tell you where the parent is incarcerated and how to contact them in a letter. Other than that, it is all on you.”

Henry said his Angel Tree has 33 Waxahachie children represented on his tree. That list is the culmination of work by the Fresh Market family to contact each of the 33 caregivers after the paper angels were received.

He also mailed a personal letter to all 33 incarcerated parents, ensuring that their children would be taken care of this Christmas.

“They all have families, and they all have stories,” Henry said of the tree. “They all have people that they love.”

Henry noted that, if all 33 Waxahachie children are adopted before the deadline, his tree could expand to add about 40 children around Ellis County who have parents incarcerated around the state.

Henry said residents could either sponsor an angel and personally purchase the gifts or, if interested, can donate a minimum of $25 to the Angel Tree. The tree will gather presents for the children through Dec. 15, while the Christmas Party for the Angel Tree will kick off 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18 at Fresh Market Coffee.

Saint Nicholas himself will also be featured as a special guest and all of the children receiving gifts will be present. Those who sponsored an angel will also be invited to attend. All of the gifts are also personalized with a handwritten note from the incarcerated parent.

For Henry, the Angel Tree means more than giving presents to children in Ellis County. For him, it’s about helping the community that helped him - both on the inside and out.

He said being honest about your mistakes – and learning from them – is the best path to recovery.

Henry once had the world at his fingertips. Then he was inmate No. 2009265. In January, he returned to his community with a newfound sense of philanthropy, determined to create an even better version of himself.

“I’ll never be able to fool myself into what I did not happening,” Henry said of his accident. “You can’t atone for that. The best that I can do at this point is to help people learn. Not just the ‘Don’t drink and drive,’ but the whole story of when you make a bad decision in life, it is hard. But what are you going to do about it? Who are you going to surround yourself around with? Are you going to sit down and quit, or are you going to pick up and say it is time to turn the table and lead the pack?”

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Additional reporting by Andrew Branca/Daily Light