Hundreds of thousands of children of incarcerated parents across the country are slated to receive Bibles and Christmas gifts this holiday season as part of Prison Fellowship’s annual “Angel Tree” effort — an outreach to inmates and their families.
It’s an annual project the Christian nonprofit has been running since 1982, after the late Mary Kay Beard — a woman who was once on the FBI’s “ten most wanted list” — came up with the idea, and it quickly spread. Beard’s “Angel Tree” program offers kids Christmas gifts on behalf of their incarcerated parents “as well as a simple message about God’s love and forgiveness.”
But it’s Beard’s own personal story that only adds to the intrigue surrounding Angel Tree.
“Mary Kay, who was a bank robber, came up with this concept of Angel Tree when she got out of (prison), encouraging people to purchase and deliver Christmas gifts on behalf of incarcerated moms and dads,” James J. Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, recently told Faithwire.
It’s a remarkable story, considering that Beard — an infamous bank robber who was at one point wanted in four states — once faced 36 indictments, 11 federal charges and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. She ended up serving just six years and went on to launch the gift program that continues to help kids and families in need.
Since its 1982 inception, Angel Tree has delivered 10 million gifts to kids in need on behalf of 4.2 million imprisoned parents.
It all started during Beard’s first year in prison when she decided to give her life to God while reading the Bible one day. It wasn’t long after that the convicted bank robber saw her calling begin to come to fruition.
And the roots were firmly set when she watched her fellow female prisoners scrounge up any and all items they could — soap, shampoo and other toiletries — to give them to their kids at Christmastime; it was all these parents had and, though simple, the tiny gifts and trinkets meant the world to the inmates’ children.
After Beard’s release, she joined Prison Fellowship and remembered those gifts the women would give to their children. Then, when asked to come up with an outreach program, she proposed Angel Tree and the rest is, well, history.
As it turns out, Beard’s legacy has lived on, with other formerly incarcerated individuals stepping up to the plate to also take part in the initiative, which is now active in all 50 states; Beard died in April of this year.
“One of the women that Mary Kay Beard met after she was no longer in prison was a woman named Deborah Daniels,” Ackerman explained, noting that Daniels, who connected through her own children through Angel Tree while she was incarcerated, has gone on to become an area director for Prison Fellowship’s southeast programs.
Ackerman said one-third of Prison Fellowship’s California field staff are formerly incarcerated — and that one is a former member of a Mexican drug cartel. These changed individuals join other volunteers in being the “hands and feet of Jesus and acting as proxies of the parents,” he explained.
During the 2015 Christmas season, alone, the Angel Tree program served 300,000 kids across America, delivering gifts on behalf of incarcerated parents. This year, in addition to gifts, the kids will be able to receive full-text adventure Bibles — something the guardians of these children can request free-of-charge.
Ackerman described the Angel Tree process through which children are registered to receive gifts, noting that the organization goes into prisons where they offer programming and interacts with parents in an effort to sign kids up.
“We sit with a clipboard and have (the parents) fill out a form with the age, name and type of gifts, who the caregiver is, address and contact,” he said. “And that’s where the sign up process happens, and all of those get scanned into Angel Base which then digitizes those forms and basically begins the process of assigning children to the churches that are closes to where they live.”
From there, pastors and church leaders speak before congregations and encourage parishioners to pick a child and get a gift for him or her. Then, the church either coordinates gift delivery — or, in some cases, hosts Angel Tree parties during which children and guardians will come to the church to accept the gifts from their parents.
This year, Ackerman said Prison Fellowship is set to serve a minimum of 145,000 households, noting that there is often more than one child per household. After the gifts are delivered, the families will have the chance to request either an English or Spanish version of Zonderkidz’s “The Adventure Bible” — and the book will be mailed out to them.
“Having a parent go away to prison can have … a devastating effect on the economic makeup of that household, and so for a lot of children the Christmas gift they get through the Angel Tree program is the only Christmas gift they are going to see,” Ackerman explained.
He said Angel Tree is a way to tell children, “Jesus loves you and your parent loves you as well.”
Find out more about the Angel Tree program here.
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