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December 15, 2001
Column #1059


     Who are the most forgotten victims of crime? 

     The two million children of America's prisoners. ''These children are not responsible for what their parents did. But they have to suffer economically and emotionally,'' said Mary Kay Beard, an ex-inmate who created the Angel Tree program of Prison Fellowship in 1980. 

     She went to the prison near Birmingham, Ala. where she served time for armed robbery and collected the names of 200 children.Volunteers called their caregivers, asking what they wanted or needed for Christmas. A paper angel was hung on trees in two malls with the name of each child, its age and desired gifts. Ms. Beard invited the public on radio ''to buy Christmas for an angel.'' 

     People bought items of clothing, usually a winter coat or shoes, plus dolls or even a bicycle. They brought gifts to volunteers who wrapped them. Soon all of the angels had gifts, and more wanted to help. Ms.Beard went to a men's prison for more names, ultimately 556 in all. 

     Each was given as a gift ''From your Dad'' or ''your Mom.''

     One grandmother said, ''I have four of the most ungrateful grandchildren, who never even write a thank you note.'' She grabbed four angels off the tree, returned in three hours with a man carrying armloads of presents, and sat down to wrap them saying, ''I've never had so much fun.'' She sent her grandchildren a note saying what she bought with their money for kids in real need!

     Mary Kay Beard was the first female Prison Fellowship Director. When she told a dozen male colleagues about it, suggesting that they too have Angel Trees, they dismissed it, saying ''You are in the Bible Belt. People would not respond in our area.'' She replied, ''Christmas is the same all over the country. It is about children, family and gifts. When kids receive a gift from their parent who is away, they know they are loved and remembered.''

     They finally agreed to test Angel Tree in a dozen diverse states Christmas, 1981, and enjoyed the same success. Last year a stunning 592,000 angels got a gift!

     Does it make any lasting difference? Consider what happened in Chicago to Antonio Ratliff. His dad, Stanley, was in prison on drug charges and his mother Antoinette, was working. Antonio's grandmother got a call to ask what the kindergartner wanted for Christmas, two gifts given in the name of his dad by local church volunteers.

     ''I was shocked,'' recalls Antoinette. ''I did not know anything about Angel Tree. It was too good to be true.'' Antonio, who is now 18, recalls, ''I had a couple of gifts under the tree, which my mother said were from my daddy. One was a fire truck. I was happy my father remembered me.'' 

     Today Stanley is the music director of Lawndale Community Church. His first year out of prison, he persuaded church members to care for 100 angels. Last year, the church gave gifts to 815 kids, 250 of whom were cared for by volunteers from suburban Christ Church of Oak Brook, where Nan Barnhart is a member, the woman who bought Antonio his fire truck.

     Today the Ratliffs organize a Christmas play and singing for hundreds of children who come to get gifts from family members behind bars.

My son, Adam, has been a volunteer who has bought and taken gifts to the homes of Angel tree children for a dozen years. In one family he visited, a 17-year-old daughter had a baby of her own out-of-wedlock, a 15-year-old was pregnant, a three-year-old was autistic and there was an 8-year-old. 

     ''The clear negative impact of having a father in jail had led the two oldest daughters to make bad choices and to rationalize them,'' he recalled. ''The mother was overwhelmed, trying to raise four kids and hold down a job. When we walked up, the kids eyes lit up. The gifts from their prison father, who had not forgotten them, might help them to recognize the need to make better choices.''

     Adam left nothing to chance. After the gifts were unwrapped, Adam shared the Gospel plan about Jesus and his gift to all sinners ''so they could see this was not a charitable handout but had spiritually significant, eternal value beyond the Christmas gifts.'' The 8-year-old boy, responded to the Gospel, saying he was sorry for his sins and accepted Jesus. Adam then asked for prayer requests, a concept that was new to them.

     James writes,: ''Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.'' 

     Even now you can be an angel to an angel. Call 800 55-ANGEL.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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