In high school, Mary Kay Beard placed at the top of her graduating class. A few years down the road, she was on the FBI's top ten most-wanted list.
People would compare her to Bonnie Parker of the notorious duo Bonnie and Clyde. A native of Springfield, Missouri, Mary Kay was wanted for bank robberies in several states. The mafia wanted her dead for crossing them in a heist.
In June 1972, 27-year-old Mary Kay was arrested. She faced dozens of state and federal charges and 21 years in prison.
A PROMISE IN PRISON
Tucked away in solitary, she reached for the only companion she was allowed—a Bible. She flipped through the pages and read God's promise in the book of Ezekiel:
And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NLT).
With nowhere else to turn, Mary Kay said a prayer and asked God to turn her life around.
And God followed through. It was during her first year in that Alabama prison that He started to reveal Mary Kay's new calling. Around Christmas, she noticed the way incarcerated mothers would collect any little items to give their children as gifts—soaps, socks, toothpaste. But these were special because they came from Mom.
It was something Mary Kay would never forget.
THE LEGACY OF AN ANGEL
After only six years in prison, Mary Kay was released. She joined the staff of Prison Fellowship®, and as Christmas rolled around, she had an idea.
Mary Kay visited prisoners to find out what they would give their children, and she wrote the requests on some cut-out paper angels. Then she invited shoppers at a local mall to help provide the gifts.
God had planted the seed in Mary Kay's heart, and out of it grew Angel Tree®. To this day, churches and organizations partner with the program to provide Christmas gifts for children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. As a result, parents can feel they are doing something special for their children, and their children can feel remembered, valued, and loved.
Mary Kay Beard passed away in April 2016, but her mission to serve prisoners' families lives on. To honor that legacy, Prison Fellowship named Mary Kay the 2016 Restorer of Hope, as one of five Charles Colson Hope Award honorees. Mary Kay’s daughter, Brenda, accepted the award on her mother’s behalf.
“When [Mom] went to prison there weren't advocates fighting to preserve the family relationship,” Brenda wrote later, noting the shame she had felt as a prisoner's daughter. “She knew [Angel Tree] was an opportunity to make the world a better place by sharing God's Word.”