I believe in miracles—not just the ones the Bible tells us about, but the ones that happen today that are most often labeled coincidence. I can’t tell this story of faith, hope, and love without giving credit to my heavenly Father.
More than 20 years ago, I was a middle school teacher in a small town with its fair share of troubled youth. I had a passion to help these students, and it’s one that still burns within me. But the day Anthony Conyers, a small, unkempt boy, walked into my classroom was the beginning of a life-changing journey that brought him from a shy student to my loving son.
Any teacher will tell you, if you get a student in the middle of January, there’s a story that comes with the kid. Tony had been placed in foster care, and the first miracle we experienced was that our lives crossed in the first place. He was from a town 15 miles away, and he was only in my class for three months. But that was long enough for him to burrow deep into my heart.
I knew life had been horrible for this little boy, but it wasn’t until many years later that I learned just how bad things had been for him. He tried hard to hide his past, but he was keen enough to know my concern was genuine. I found the foster home he was in to be lacking many of his and his brother’s basic needs, but he tried to hide that, so they could stay there.
Tony and I bonded tightly in the few months we had and continued to keep in contact through letters we exchanged through a guidance counselor at his school.
I lost contact with Tony the next school year, because he withdrew from school and moved to another county when his mom was released from prison. I thought about him often and was shocked when I received a phone call a year or so later, telling me Tony had been arrested. Our school resource officer had also bonded with this child and had heard on the local news that four youths—including Tony—had been arrested for a murder in a neighboring town. I couldn’t believe it until I turned on the television and saw him, handcuffed, being led into the back of a police station.
I can’t explain the emotions I felt that day, but I knew I had to contact Tony. I assumed that no one else would be there for him, and I was right. He was a 14-year-old kid who’d been with the wrong people at the wrong time. I didn’t know the details, but I knew I had to let him know that someone still cared. I was not allowed to visit the juvenile facility he was in, but I could write him letters. We wrote back and forth for a short while. He was adjudicated as an adult because of the seriousness of his charges and was soon transferred to our county jail. At that point, I began weekly visits and maintained them for more than three years before he went to trial.
As we talked on filthy phones through Plexiglas etched with initials and doodles from years of jailhouse visits, I got to know how amazing this kid really was. I couldn’t help but compare how seldom he complained, compared to my students at school and even my own two teens at home. We were given one hour to visit, and sometimes I struggled with things to talk about to get his mind out of incarceration and back into the world I was in. I read several books to him, and he remembers them even today, including the voices I used when reading The Indian in the Cupboard.
We laughed a lot. I watched him grow from that 14-year-old boy to a young man heading toward his 18th birthday during those visits. I experienced much frustration, as door after door was slammed in my face while I tried to help this kid. He wasn’t charged with killing anyone, but he was charged with being there when someone else did.
We never discussed what happened. I knew we were being recorded every visit, and I didn’t want to jeopardize his case. I only knew what I heard on the news and read in the papers. Tony was charged with principle to murder. He was with three older boys when they broke into a home they said they assumed was unoccupied. But there was someone in the home. An elderly gentleman lost his life that night. I was told that Tony was on the porch when this all happened and that he didn’t know about it until later that evening. To be honest, I didn’t know what to believe, but I couldn’t give up on the kid I sat across from week after week.
We saw God’s miracles move in our lives when my mother met Tony’s birth mother where she was incarcerated. My mom was a pastor who had a prison ministry at Lowell Women’s Prison that met once a month with a group of women there. One day, an inmate stood up and asked for prayer for her son who was incarcerated and awaiting trial. As she spoke, my mom realized that she was speaking about Tony. Mom told her that I had been visiting him each week, and Mary wrote to ask me to contact his attorney. I explained that the attorney wouldn’t speak to me because I was not his family. She then offered to give custody of Tony to me. It took months for the paperwork to get from her, to Tallahassee, and then back to me, but I eventually took legal custody of the kid I had been taking care of anyway. By this time, Tony was nearing his trial date, but still my phone calls to his attorney were not returned.
Tony went to trial and was found guilty. When I heard he’d received life, for the first time in my life, I felt an overwhelming sadness that wouldn’t go away. I had spent my life helping children and was used to seeing positive results. I had never felt so helpless. I began writing letters to anyone I thought might help us. Door after door was slammed in my face, or I was ignored all together.
In the meantime, I kept writing Tony letters of encouragement to help him survive in an environment that I knew just enough about to make me worry. As always, his letters and phone calls were all about trying to make me feel better. I stayed on him to continue his education but soon discovered that option was not available to someone serving life. One of the first miracles that had happened when someone at the prison gave him a GED book to study, even though he wasn’t allowed to take the classes. The best gift I ever received in the mail was Tony’s GED certificate. The note attached said that his scores were the highest the test administrator had ever seen.
Years passed, and my kid became a man. We continued exchanging letters and phone calls to keep in touch. In one letter, Tony thanked me for always being there for him and not giving up. He said I acted more like a mom than a teacher. I reminded him that his birth mother had given me custody, and from that moment on, he began his letters with Dear Mom, rather than Dear Mrs. Hunter.
Around this time, I transferred my teaching job from the middle school to our local high school. I taught freshmen, and Tony began writing letters to my students for me to read at the beginning of the semester.
He encouraged my students to think about their choices and how the consequences of bad choices could affect their lives forever, just as it had his. His story grabbed the hearts of my students, and I used it with every new group that walked into my classroom.
Tony’s letters have had such an impact on my students over the years. Many have told me that those letters directly changed the way they looked at life decisions.
Things began to change when I received a phone call from a New York City news reporter. She was doing a story on kids who were serving life in prison for crimes they’d committed when they were younger than 16 years of age. I consider this lady to be our angel. She helped us realize that there were others in the world who thought Tony deserved another chance. One of the miracles in all of this was that she chose Florida to do her investigative study and picked two young men out of almost 300 to focus on—and one was Tony.
This reporter got my name from his sister and came to interview and film me reading one of Tony’s letters to my students. She went to South Florida and interviewed Tony for her piece. And she sent me an email that made my heart skip a beat. She said that after meeting Tony, she couldn’t get him or his story out of her mind. She told me she had a friend who was an international attorney, and that she was going to speak to him about Tony’s case.
Miraculous is about the only word I can use to describe the next part of our journey. The attorney this reporter was speaking of was John Lauro. At first, he told us there wasn’t much he could do, since Tony was already sentenced and serving life. Months went by, and then one day, at the end of school, my phone rang. The call was from New York, and the excitement in the reporter’s voice was evident. She was in her newsroom and had just received news that the United States Supreme Court had decided that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a juvenile was unconstitutional. Neither of us knew exactly what that meant for Tony, but within weeks, she had talked with Attorney Lauro. Then she gave me his cell number.
I must admit, I knew nothing about John Lauro when I made that first call, except that he was genuine and willing to do what he could to help Tony out. Later that evening, after our conversation, I Googled his name and realized just how blessed Tony was to have this celebrated and much-honored attorney willing to take on his case.
John’s staff immediately began researching and investigating Tony and his case. He went to meet him, then called to tell me he was determined to do all he could to help after getting to know Tony. Within weeks, he sent three wonderful, supportive attorneys to my house to learn everything I could tell about Tony and our journey together. Over the next several months, John kept me informed on everything that was going on with the case. I marveled at the fact they seemed to leave no stone unturned. For the first time in many years, I didn’t feel alone when it came to my kid. I knew God had sent me the best, and my gratitude for His miracles is indescribable.
One of the best parts of the time we spent awaiting the resentencing hearing came when Tony was transferred back to our county jail to be available for court there. I visited him each week, and we picked up our conversations through the jailhouse phones that looked the same, smelled the same, and had the same static as before. The only difference was I was talking to a 32-year-old man now, instead of the kid who had stared across at me all those years ago. The same grin, the same sparkling eyes—but now they were accompanied by a manly voice and muscles. We still shared the same sense of humor that had made us giggle like little kids. The biggest difference was that we now shared hope that there might be an answer coming for all those years of prayer.
On September 8, 2016, Tony’s hearing finally began. It was an experience full of miracles. The team John Lauro had put together was phenomenal. For two days, I sat amazed as expert witnesses and regular citizens testified on Tony’s behalf. Attorneys who were brilliant, caring, and on top of every aspect of this trial gave Tony their all. A counselor from the Orlando Salvation Army met with Tony before the trial and testified that Tony was guaranteed a place in the program there for a year to help him adjust to life outside prison. My former students testified how Tony’s story had changed their lives. After all those years of feeling alone in trying to help my son, I now felt supported and blessed beyond words.
I prayed silently for some miracles as the judge reentered the courtroom after his deliberations at the end of the second day. The room was full of hope and support. Honestly, I was afraid to let myself imagine Tony walking out of that county jail. I had to remind myself to breathe. I couldn’t make myself look up when the judge began to speak. And when he did, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Tony’s life sentence, with no chance of parole, had been reduced to 27 years. At first I couldn’t focus on anything but the disappointment on the faces of those around me. We all watched as Tony was led out of the room by a bailiff, then we left in courtroom in silence.
At the beginning of this story, I told you I believed in miracles. I still do. I also believe that I must trust God’s timing. Tony grew up behind bars—he’s been incarcerated since he was 14 years old. Many of those years were spent as a lifer, with no chance of ever getting out. For so many years we had to live in faith; we had no real hope that Tony would be released. But that is no longer the case! I am constantly amazed at the man he is today, but I don’t believe his heart and mind were ready for freedom. God is now allowing him to grow and plan with a different path in view.
I believe that God has given us this time to learn to live a life of hope. Tony has served 19 years of his sentence and, just like any nagging mother, I constantly remind him of the world available to him if he keeps making good decisions. God has proven Himself to us over and over again through His miracles, and He is not through with us yet.
You may have read Proverbs 3:5–6 before, but I want to encourage you to see these verses as a promise meant just for you. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths” (NKJV).
Does this story strike a chord for you? Read the entire May 2018 issue here.
Written by Nancy Hunters