Could You Help Sick Kids, Too?
Like many Americans, Kym Gillis, 45, of Gresham, OR, hit the mall after Thanksgiving last year to do her Christmas shopping. Unlike most, however, she was on a mercy mission-buying goodies for children with life-threatening diseases. “My living room was filled with eighteen hundred dollars worth of toys,” says Gillis. Some needy families with sick kids even received gift certificates to local grocery stores for their holiday meals. “We didn’t want them to have to worry about a thing for Christmas,” she explains.
The Christmas deliveries were a natural spin-off of Love Letters, the charity Gillis, who’s single, launched in January 1997 under the auspices of Youth With A Mission, a nondenominational Christian organization. Working with a small group of volunteers, she sends personalized letters, postcards, and gifts to boys and girls stricken with cancer and other diseases. Her current list is made up of 25 children, some of whom are terminally ill. “I’ve written more than two thousand letters since I started,” she says.
The letters are short, breezy, and plastered with colorful stickers. Their appeal is simple: “Kids love getting something with their name on it,” says Gillis. The subject matter is irrelevant; it’s the comfort factor that matters. “I write about the weather; trips to the river; Lucy, my cockatiel … sometimes it’s just, `Hey, I was thinking about you today.'”
For special occasions, Gillis sends a Party in a Box-complete with streamers, balloons, disposable cameras, and gift certificates for cake and ice cream. At Christmas, she goes even further. In addition to mailing off holiday cards stuffed with festive stickers, window decals, and Christmas pictures to color, she plays Santa.
“I ask kids what’s on their wish list,” she says. “For some, this will be their last Christmas, so we try to do everything we possibly can for them.” Gillis adds that she’s amazed at how simple the children’s requests tend to be: Barbies and Matchbox cars, not computer games or CD players, topped their lists last year. “These kids are grateful for anything we give them,” she says. Gillis pays most costs out of her own pocket, and she receives some donations from area churches and people who’ve heard about her work.
A former labor and delivery nurse, she also spent four years on the streets of Portland, OR, in the early 1990’s, working with homeless kids; but a degenerative bone disease progressed and left her increasingly disabled. “I’m very people-oriented, and I reached a point where I couldn’t work,” she remembers. “I was so depressed.” She came up with the idea of writing to sick kids when she read about a child with cancer in a local newspaper. After getting permission from the parents, she sent several notes in the child, and a vocation was born.
Gillis, who’s had two knee replacements in the past year and can walk only short distances, says that Love Letters completely changed her life: “These children are the epitome of courage. And I feel good knowing I helped make their lives a little bit better during a very dark time.”
Take last Christmas, when Gillis delivered a bundle of gifts to a 5-year-old boy with cancer. “This little guy just couldn’t believe everything in the bag was for him,” she says. “He looked at his mother and said, `Mom, Santa Claus is real.’ Who could ever forget a moment like that?”