A decade ago, encouraging military personnel would have been the last thing on Angel Geronimo's mind.
"I came to Modesto from Reno 10 years ago to visit my sister," she said. "I was only supposed to be here for a week, but I never went back. Reno was a bad town for me. I came here and experienced God. My whole life was transformed in a year."
Geronimo, who spent her early years in Patterson, said her lifestyle in her mid-20s was far from what it is now.
"I was partying, drinking. I smoked. I did drugs," she said. "I came here broken. I lost everything -- my home, my car, my boyfriend, everything you could see. I was so frail. I would cry daily because my heart was in a million pieces. It was so hard to leave the person who was bringing all this darkness into my life, because I really loved him. But I knew I had to leave him."
Geronimo's sister and brother-in-law "kind of took me under their wings," she said. "It was like God turned on a light switch for me. I just left all of that stuff behind. Most people struggle (with addictions), but I didn't even have to try. It was like God just took it from me. Overnight, I was immersed in his word. I couldn't put the Bible down. I was hungry to read it day and night."
Now 36 and married for three years with a 2-year-old son and another boy due this week, Geronimo looks back and marvels at how much her life has changed.
In Reno, she had a position of responsibility, overseeing three retail stores and training to be a district manager. When she moved to Modesto, she got a job in a small store, now closed, called Oh For the Memories. She began teaching workshops there, showing people how to emboss cards and make custom scrapbook pages.
It morphed into a ministry, she said. "God would put people on my heart and I would make cards for them," she said. "I began praying about who needed to receive a card. Then, when I got married, my husband encouraged me to start selling my cards. That's where this all took off."
Geronimo calls her business FairestLJ, after the hymn "Fairest Lord Jesus." She sells her goods on Etsy.com, an online marketplace that specializes in homemade goods, everything from clothes to jewelry.
"It's an awesome community of artisans," said Geronimo, who makes
custom cards and wedding invitations, among other paper products. "It's all across the world. I've shipped to Australia, China, England. That makes it really interesting."
Julie Danielson, who with her husband took over the military ministry at St. Joseph's Church in Modesto this year, found Geronimo online and ordered custom military-themed cards from her. Then the artist came up with the idea of dog tags -- a set of 2½-by-3½-inch laminated cards with Bible verses on them. Here are a few of the verses:
"Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is there anything too hard for me?" (Jeremiah 32:27)
"Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise up against me, in this I will be confident." (Psalm 27:1-3)
"The Lord your God which goes before you, he shall fight for you." (Deuteronomy 1:30).
"I prayed about which verses to include," Geronimo said. "Those are verses that have ministered to me and to my husband. We are all fighting some kind of battle. God's word is just encouraging you to go on and be strong and rely on God for your strength. These are verses that give hope and encouragement."
The dog tags, which sell for $12, have been a big hit with soldiers and their parents, Danielson said.
"I always keep a set of them in my purse," she said. "Whenever I go to the supermarket or to church or taking the garbage out, I meet someone who needs something like this -- someone whose nephew was going to be deployed or a woman who was worried about her son in Afghanistan.
"I started giving them out. They become a real sense of comfort, because if you read the verses, as a parent, you just get a peaceful feeling."
Danielson also packs a set into the boxes of goodies she ships to a chaplain in Afghanistan, who distributes them to men and women in his battalion who want them.
"When you're out there, God is so important," she said. "Our soldiers are in danger a lot, especially now, when they're dealing with tribes in Afghanistan. No matter what anyone thinks about the war, we're just here to support the troops. They are there, so we're supporting them in every way we can."
As for Geronimo, the dog tags and specialty cards are just another outgrowth of her move to Modesto 10 years ago and the faith that followed.
"I can't do anything without prayer," she said. "It's the No. 1 thing that gives me my ideas on everything. I pray for people to be blessed and ministered to through whatever I do, whether it be wedding invitations or for the soldiers. My faith has everything to do with it."
To view items made by Angel Geronimo, visit fairestlj.etsy.com.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.