More than half a million children whose fathers or mothers are behind bars will not be forgotten this Christmas thanks to an outreach of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Prison Fellowship serves an often scorned and neglected group of people: prisoners and their families. Besides visiting with those in prison and sharing the gospel and Christian fellowship with them, a major focus of the ministry is reaching out to inmates' children -- kids who, through no fault of their own, are doing their own "hard time." Often these children do not understand why they must be separated from their parents, and they long to reaffirm their connection with them.

It was for this reason that former prisoner Mary Kay Beard started Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program. In 1982 she requested permission to set up Christmas trees in shopping malls to recruit people to purchase gifts for the children of incarcerated moms and dads. Beard says she spent six years in prison watching women hoard the soap, toothpaste, and shampoo they got from charities in order to wrap the items as gifts for their children. That experience taught her that children care less about things than they do about knowing they are loved.

Today the Angel Tree program partners with churches and organizations around the U.S. to provide Christmas gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. Since the program started, 5.8 million prisoners' children have received more than 11.5 million gifts nationwide.

Jean Senesi, coordinator for Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, says the outreach makes a big difference to children who have a parent missing from their daily lives.

"These gifts are given in the name of the prisoner parent," she says, "so when a church volunteer hands over a gift, it's like giving a gift from [the child's] mom or dad."

According to Senesi, it is rewarding to see the tremendous excitement the children have on receiving an Angel Tree gift. The children always say "'Oh, I knew they wouldn't forget me!'" she says, adding, "they're so excited that their parents have remembered them -- it's all worthwhile."

And Senesi says Angel Tree is not only about giving Christmas presents; it is also about helping families. She points out that the children targeted in the program are among the most at-risk youngsters in America.

"These children are five times more likely to be incarcerated themselves," Senesi says, "and that's just because they're following in the footsteps of their parents."

But the program coordinator hopes that Angel Tree is helping to put those at-risk youth on a different track.

"We believe that if we can intercede and help bring reconciliation between parent and the child -- because the child is often lonely and feels like their parent has forgotten them -- and also share the good news of Jesus Christ with them," Senesi says, "then that can be a heart-changing experience, which will change the footsteps that these children are walking in."

This year more than half a million children across America will receive gifts through Angel Tree. Vine Books has recently published a collection of heartwarming stories about the program's two decades of outreach, titled Six Million Angels: Stories from 20 Years of Angel Tree's Ministry to the Children of Prisoners.


Related Links:

An Interview with Angel Tree Founder, Mary Kay Beard
Prison Fellowship Ministries 
Angel Tree