CHHS student encourages others through story of forgiveness
By EMILY SPARACINO / Staff Writer
CHELSEA – Chelsea High School senior Tristan Ziannis has been particularly busy the last few months with school, softball and preparations for college in the fall.
Ziannis, 17, is nearing the end of both her impressive career with the Lady Hornets and her time as a student at CHHS. Like her classmates, she has plenty of excuses to keep her extracurricular activities to a minimum as graduation approaches.
But Ziannis has been far from selfish with her time outside of the classroom and away from the softball field lately. Extenuating circumstances with family members have landed Ziannis in a supportive role, and recently, she started speaking publicly about some of the experiences that have shaped her childhood and changed her family.
Ziannis said she hopes her story helps others who are facing similar circumstances.
Trials and time
Kelly Ziannis, Tristan’s mother, was 4 years old when Kelly’s father moved out of their home.
His life began unraveling when he returned from the Korean War, and alcohol and other factors surfaced.
“Things got worse after he came back from war,” Kelly said.
When Kelly was Tristan’s age, her father went to prison for murder.
“I testified against him,” Kelly said. “That kind of broke our relationship for quite some time.”
Kelly moved on with her life and eventually had her only daughter, Tristan.
She allowed Tristan to speak with her grandfather on the phone, and Tristan was well aware of the circumstances that led to his incarceration.
“She understood what he did at an early age,” Kelly said.
They sent him clippings of newspaper articles about Tristan’s softball games periodically, and he and Tristan spent much time talking about “ball and God,” Kelly said.
“I talked to him a lot on the phone,” Tristan said.
Then, after one of Kelly’s nephews died in a car accident, Tristan asked her mother if they could visit her grandfather in prison.
“I had never taken her to see him,” Kelly said of Tristan, who was 7 at the time. “She asked me to take her to prison to meet her Papi. I asked her why, and she said he was sad, too, and he needed a hug.”
Kelly agreed, and 10 years after last seeing him at the trial, Kelly took Tristan to the St. Clair Correctional Facility for what would be an emotional meeting.
Without having seen him in person before, Tristan ran straight to her grandfather and hugged him.
“He cried, and I had never seen him cry,” Kelly said. “At that point on, my forgiveness (for him) started then. He got saved the next day. He said that she (Tristan) was forgiveness in its purest form.”
Kelly’s mother moved in with her and Tristan about five years ago to recuperate from shoulder replacement surgery.
She has always been involved in Tristan’s life and is a fixture at the softball field, affectionately known by Tristan’s teammates as “Nana.”
“My mom has been a godsend, a rock,” Kelly said.
In September 2015, Kelly’s father called them and said his cancer from a decade ago was back. At 81 years old, serving a life without parole sentence, he declined to undergo treatment.
Two weeks later, Kelly’s mother had a massive stroke.
In the weeks and months after, when they weren’t at work or school, Kelly and Tristan split their time between her mother and father, logging several more visits with him in the prison infirmary before he died in mid-February.
Tristan described the last visits as “family times” during which she gained a strong sense of the man he was apart from his shackles and tainted past.
“I actually really liked him. He was really smart,” Tristan said. “He was very sweet. I liked him more than I expected.”
Kelly said the news of her father’s illness solidified her love and forgiveness for him.
“When I got that phone call, the one thing that was there is I knew I loved him,” she said. “We took an entire lifetime and crammed it into five months, and that was for her (Tristan) and for me. She never gave up on him.”
Kelly’s mother also granted him forgiveness in the process.
“They talked on the phone, and he apologized, and they said they loved one another,” Kelly said of her parents. “I had never heard that in my life, and neither had she.”
A platform worth sharing
Several weeks ago, Tristan seized an opportunity to share her story with children and adults at Village Springs Baptist Church in Remlap.
Pastor Glenn Bynum, who works in prison ministry and knew Kelly’s father, invited Tristan and Kelly to speak to others – particularly children – that might be grappling with issues related to a family member in prison.
Tristan’s approach to talking about her grandfather is open and honest.
“It’s never been anything that I hide,” she said. “I think some people are more particular about it and don’t want to say anything. You shouldn’t want to keep it a secret because it is what it is.”
Although the entry process and security checks for visitors at the prison can be scary for someone who has never been, Tristan said she would have regretted not visiting her grandfather.
She also talked about forgiveness as a means to having a positive relationship with someone in the same situation.
“Don’t be discouraged,” she said. “I think forgiving is big. You can’t change it, and they can’t change it either.
“I don’t like holding onto things. If you hold onto it, you’ll miss out on something.”
Tristan and Kelly recently participated in a podcast called “Attention to Redemption,” and hope to continue sharing their experiences through different outlets in the future.
Tristan’s plans after graduation May 24 are to start at Southern Union State Community College in August and eventually transfer to Auburn University. She wants to work in family counseling, she said.
“She’s very successful,” Kelly said of Tristan. “I don’t know what we did to raise her right, but I’ll take it.”