Mary Kay Beard’s heart used to be full of bitterness and resent.
The Birmingham, Ala., resident came from a rough family, with an alcoholic and abusive father.
Beard, a former bank robber and prisoner, will be in Belton on Tuesday to share her story as the keynote speaker for the Jesus Acts in Inmates’ Lives (J.A.I.L.) Ministry Banquet at the Bell County Expo Center.
Beard became romantically involved with a career criminal who became her husband, and he taught her his trade: safe cracking. In the following years, she embarked on a life of bank robbery. By age 27, she was wanted by federal authorities and was the target of a mafia contract.
“I was getting revenge on society or somebody, I wasn’t sure who,” said Beard.
Her path inevitably led to her capture and incarceration, but it was while behind bars, Beard learned of her true life’s mission.
Awaiting trial in solitary confinement, Beard began reading a Gideon Bible. She had been raised with religion, but had never felt saved.
She became inspired by church volunteers who would visit with incarcerated women like her for Bible study. Volunteers would give inmates the toiletries they needed, and she watched with great interest as the inmates would wrap those small tokens in specs of paper.
The women would give things like toothpaste to their children for Christmas. Beard marveled at the joy the humble gifts elicited from the kids.
“They didn’t care about what momma gave them, they just wanted to be with her,” Beard said.
After serving five and a half years in prison, Beard was paroled. Eventually, she came to work for Prisoner Fellowship, which tasked her with creating a Christmas program for inmates.
Memories of the six Christmases she spent behind bars led her to found the Angel Tree program in 1982. The program takes donated Christmas presents and gives them to the children of men and women imprisoned across the nation.
The local Angel Tree program is connected to the national nonprofit Prison Fellowship and organized through J.A.I.L. Ministry. Last year, local donations provided Christmas presents to more than 1,700 children across the U.S.
Local Angel Tree organizer Jeannette Kelley said she is very excited to meet Beard and hear her story.
“I’ve read about it, I know about it,” Kelley said. “I feel real honored that she has chosen to come and help us with the fundraising.”
Tuesday’s event is the chief annual fundraiser for J.A.I.L. Ministry. Angel Tree is only a part of the nonprofit, which ministers to the inmates of Bell County Jail and provides Bibles for the incarcerated.