Imagine you are a child whose mother or father is locked away in prison this holiday season. Not only do you feel the sting of loneliness, you likely will awaken to an empty stocking Christmas morning.


Sadly, for too many children, this is not an imaginary scenario. According to U.S. News & World Report (April 2002), an estimated 10 million children nationwide have had a mother or father or both behind bars at some point in their lives. Nearly 2 million children currently have an incarcerated parent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.


The light in this dark picture is that scores of such children will have a happier experience December 25, thanks to Mary Kay Beard and Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree ministry.


Angel Tree debuted in 1982 when Beard, an ex-prisoner, received permission to erect Christmas trees in shopping malls to recruit shoppers to purchase presents for prisoners' children. In Angel Tree's first year, Prison Fellowship volunteers distributed Christmas presents to 556 Alabama children. The program later expanded to last long after the Christmas trees have been taken down. Angel Tree volunteers now help kids get school supplies, provide mentoring and even take children camping.


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


"When kids receive a Christmas gift from a parent who's away, they know that they are loved and remembered even if they can't be together," says Beard, who served part of a 22-year sentence for burglary, grand larceny and robbery.

Beard shared her thoughts and experiences with in the following interview. Can you trace for us the early days and how this vision started?


Beard:  It's one of those stories that is mind boggling. Amazing is such a small word when it comes to God's grace and mercy. I had grown up in the church, so I don't remember the first time I heard the Gospel. I don't ever remember a time in my life that I didn't know who Jesus was and how to get to Heaven, and yet I did not surrender my life and will to Him.


I went through the motions and played church for a number of years, but that gets old pretty quickly. And therefore, I quit.  I quit primarily because I was very self-centered and things had not gone the way I wanted them to. I was very angry. I felt life was unfair and I had allowed bitterness to come in and control my life. 


As a result, I was involved in a criminal lifestyle for about five years and ultimately was arrested by the FBI and sent to prison. And during the years that I was in prison, God changed my life.