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 Crosswalk.com in the following interview.

 

Crosswalk.com: 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. 

 

Crosswalk.com: How did He do that?

 

Beard:  While I was in the county jail awaiting trial, there was a group of people who came to the jail for a Sunday school class. I arrived just days before Christmas, and they had also provided Christmas gifts for every inmate. I was really touched, because I certainly didn't expect to be included as I was a stranger and they didn't know I was coming.

 

Later, I was in prison for several more Christmases and began to note a phenomenon occurring over and over. Many groups came to prison during the Christmas holidays; they brought gifts and sang Christmas carols and gave us a little tract or whatever.  The women who never went to a chapel program always went to those programs, primarily to get whatever was being given away.

 

Initially I was rather cynical about that, but then I noticed that the women would take those gifts and they would give them to their own children. The gifts were just little bits of toiletry items: a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste. And they would take those and wrap them up for their kids.

 

I realized that a mother's heart doesn't really change toward her children, even when she has broken the law in many other ways. It's still the heart of a mother to give to her children and sacrifice her own needs.

 

I was also surprised by the children -- I expected them to be upset, because children are not known for really being thrilled with a bar of soap, whether it's Christmas or not.

 

Crosswalk.com:  That's true.

 

Beard: And yet each one of them would always give Mama a big hug and say, "Oh Mama, thank you. I love you." Then I realized that although mankind is depraved, when children are with people they love, things aren't as important to them as when they are without people they love. That's when they focus more on what they get.

 

Each of those events touched my heart. Then, years later, in God's mercy and grace, I was released from prison and finished my education. I was invited in 1981 to apply for the position of Area Director for Prison Fellowship.

 

One of my first assignments was to come up with a Christmas project. My first thought was, "Well, let's do something different" because everybody else was thinking about going to the prisons. I had already been there, and didn't really want to go again. (laugh)

 

Crosswalk.com:  I can't say I blame you.

 

Beard:  I remembered the children that I had seen visiting their mothers and I knew the women would not care if I did not go to see them. So I told them, "If you will give me the names and addresses of where your children are, I will do my best to get them Christmas."

 

My vision really was 200 to 300 children maximum, but I did not know what God would do. I got the names and addresses and with the help of volunteers, we went to two different malls -- one in Birmingham, Alabama; one in Montgomery, Alabama -- and we decorated Christmas trees with paper angels, red for girls and green for boys.

 

We advertised that people could come and buy Christmas for an angel. I made mention of the fact that children are victims of crime because they are not responsible for what their parent has done.

 

That really struck a cord with people. And I realized after the fact that people, even people who are not in the church, think of Christmas as children and family and presents. They were touched by the thought that there were children who would not get gifts, and in their generosity they bought gifts. 

 

In less than a week, I had to go back not only to the women's prison, but to several other prisons and say I need more names - I've run out. At the end of that very first Christmas, 556 children got Angel Tree gifts.

 

That was the beginning. Last Christmas, some 600,000 children received Christmas gifts in the United States alone. The need is ongoing, of course. There are still many more children who have not been included. 

 

Yet, it's important that we remember that it's not just about the toys; we're actually demonstrating the real Gospel message. God so loved the world that when He saw our need, He sent us the first Christmas gift, which is Jesus, the Savior of the world. 

 

Through these tangible gifts, we want to communicate a message that their Creator loves them and wants to give them eternal life.  And that's not just for the children, but for their families as well. 

 

Many times, inmates rather tentatively give that name to the volunteers, not really believing that their child will receive Christmas gifts.  Then, in January and February, our Bible studies in prison doubled and tripled in size because inmates would come to the door of the chapel and say, "Is this the bunch that bought Christmas for my child?"

 

They came, really, out of a sense of obligation. But they stayed and heard the Gospel. Indirectly, we realized that it's an awesome tool of evangelism to the inmates. The inmates never see the volunteers, yet by reaching out to the children, God also reaches back to their parent.  

 

Crosswalk.com:  Looking back, how does it feel to know that your work has borne so much fruit and has become an institution?

 

Beard:  Well, it's awesome. Every year I'm even more amazed by how God uses us and allows us to participate in His work -- because it really is His work. I'm grateful and know that anything that lasts this long and gets this big only does because of God, not through anything that we do.

 

I don't know about you, but my visions are never this grand. Of course, He saves us to bear fruit and to bear fruit that remains. I don't know that my life would have counted for anything so significant if it hadn't been for my failures. Isn't that something?

If you would like information on how to get involved with Angel Tree, please visit http://www.angeltree.org/angeltree/channelroot/home/