Christmas tree lights up lives of children as K mart manager turns dreams into realities

By Lynn Rogers

Amidst the plaques, certificates and trophies lining Gerald Kilian’s office, one simple item attracts attention: a tiny rainbow wall-hanging that reads “Follow Your Dreams.”

Kilian indeed has followed his lifetime goal of helping needy children—in four years, his “Children’s Tree” has provided two million children with Christmas gifts and a merry holiday.

Kilian, store manager for Sycamore’s K mart, began the Children’s Tree in 1985 when he worked at the Lincoln, Illinois store. The premise is simple: tags listing a needy child’s name, sex, size and age adorn the tree and interested people take a name and buy that child presents.

“The tree represents simplicity and a simple way of life. It’s so easy and that’s what makes it successful. It’s people helping people, the way the world ought to be—one person reaching out their hand to another,” he said. “No matter what culture or language barriers, there’s nothing there but generosity.”

Kilian’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 1988, he was recognized by the U.S. Jaycees as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans. This year, he distinguished himself even further by being selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Person of the World by Junior Chamber International. He won the category of moral and religious leadership.

Kilian, 37, recently returned from the TOYP awards ceremony in Birmingham, England. The award, as well as the trip, is something he will never forget.

“The nice thing about it is that every time you win something like that, it gives you a stage to tell people about the plight of needy children throughout the world,” he explained. “If they called me and said, ‘Gerry, we’ve got an award for you but you can’t talk about it once you get here,’ I would’ve never went, because the award isn’t as important. I got to speak to 90 million people.” The ceremony was globally televised (but not in the U.S.) and translated into four languages.

“I’m just an ordinary Joe, who goes to work every day, has a small family, lives in a small house and drives an old car—it’s unbelievable,” he said. “When you’re a normal person, it’s hard to understand. You didn’t do it for the glory—you did it to help people.”

Though the Children’s Tree is in over 1,700 K marts nationwide, Kilian hammered out a deal in England for further expansion in that country’s Littlewoods department stores. Though only one tree was scheduled to go up this year (due to time factors), the first was so successful 15 more have been added.

Kilian’s inspiration for the Children’s Tree came in a memory of a childhood Christmas. “The reason I thought of it was I was one of those children myself,” he explained. “There was a Christmas when I was between ten and twelve, my mother was on public aid and we had no money, no food.”

His uncle gave Kilian and his brother $20 to “buy Christmas” and the local shopkeeper let the boys go over that amount in their purchases. “If there was ever an inspiration it would be my uncle and him.”

Ever since the beginning, Kilian related, the program has been a success. “The tree is made up of miracles—from little ones to the two big ones.”

The two big “miracles” Kilian speaks of are eerie, to say the least. The first was when Kilian was invited to speak to a Baptist church shortly before the first tree went up. The minister had car problems and Kilian (slated to speak ten minutes) was asked to talk until he arrived.

“Of course, I wasn’t a speaker before that. I got up there and started to talk—I talked like a minister, with words I didn’t understand or know. I went home and had goosebumps,” he remembered. “I knew, at that moment in time, it (the tree) had been blessed. Anything we ever touch with this tree will never go wrong. I had that inner peace I always call my guardian angel.”

Case in point: another “miracle” that happened two years ago, before the gifts were to be delivered. “A heavy windstorm came up, took the trailer, tipped it over, slid it 50 feet into a guardrail on its side and sliced open the top of the trailer,” he explained, adding each gift had been painstakingly arranged in alphabetical order.

“We thought ‘Oh my God, what a mess this will be.’ But two days later, two wreckers came out, tipped it back over and we opened the back doors of the trailer—not one gift was out of place. Now if that ain’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.”

Kilian’s faith has always been an integral part of his life and is exuded in his constant smile. “I didn’t create the program—God did. If I had created it, it wouldn’t have been so successful,” he asserted. “That’s the difference between something that’s good and something that’s great.”

This year, all 500 names on Kilian’s K mart tree were taken in 24 hours. “I think 99.9 percent of the people—and I deal with the public every day—are generous, living, compassionate and caring. You wouldn’t believe the joy people have, coming in and getting a tag.”

Many other organizations are involved with the Children’s Tree. WPRC, WDEK and the Midweek help with publicity, while Public Aid, area Jaycees, Viet Now and the Salvation Army aid in distribution.

NIU’s law fraternity, Delta Theta Phi, provides cash for any gifts not returned to the store. About 1,500 gifts (three per child) will be handed out this year at the Salvation Army on December 21 and 22.

Chatting outside his office with wife Sylvia, daughter Rachel, and friends Perry and Janet Hahn (who have nominated Kilian for every award), Kilian reflected on his “mission.” “There really is a Santa Claus,” he remarked thoughtfully.

“Yes,” added Janet Hahn. “And it’s Gerry Kilian.”