Giving Tree Sees Efforts Bear Fruit

By Anita Creamer
The Sacramento Bee
December 9, 2002

It’s one of the holidays’ sweetest miracles: In small ways and large, through formal organizations and informal gestures of the heart, it’s the season of donation.

The folks behind the Kylee Lillich Charitable Giving Tree are working hard these days to gather gifts for families in Woodland and Sacramento. And they’re working just as hard to expand their program beyond the Christmas season, to help families throughout the year.

Because, of course, needs don’t end when the presents are unwrapped and the decorations come down off the tree.

And the joy that Traci Lillich wants to spread in her late daughter’s memory neither begins nor ends with the holiday season.

“Her life was a miracle,” says Lillich, 31, who lives in North Natomas. “It was a gift given to us. It was important to have something good out of her death.”

And so the touching story of the Charitable Giving tree, this effort that started nine years ago and in a way quite unrelated to the Lillich family. At Woodland’s Lee Junior High, teachers compiling a Christmas wish list for students who seemed to go without a little too often.

They bought gifts and necessities – clothes, shoes, blankets. Over time, the program grew to include other woodland schools. Last year, the Giving tree benefited 425 youngsters.

During her tenure as a physical education teacher at Lee, Tara Keegan was a dedicated Giving Tree volunteer. Keegan, now 31 and a teacher at Elk Grove High School, is Traci Lillich’s sister. So in February 1998, when Traci gave birth to twins in Cincinnati, people at Lee Junior High knew all about it.

Keegan happily shared pictures of Kevin and Kylee Lillich with Lee’s faculty. She provided them with frequent twin updates, and she visited the twins in Cincinnati a number of times.

In January 2000, a few weeks before her second birthday, Kylee died, accidentally asphyxiated when she was playing at their home.

For Traci Lillich and her extended family back home in California, life stopped, too. At Lee Junior High, hearts broke for the family.

“Tara had been so involved in the Giving Tree when her niece passed away, we dedicated it in memory of her,” says Reyna Madueno, a program manager with the Woodland district. Even after Tara went to work in Elk Grove, she remained involved in the Giving Tree.

And when John and Traci Lillich and their son, Kevin, moved to Sacramento from Cincinnati, it was the most natural thing in the world for Traci to devote herself to the program that helps others in her daughter’s name. For her, giving makes grieving a little less painful.

The Giving Tree has incorporated as a nonprofit with an all-volunteer board of directors. It’s slowly expanding its holiday program into Sacramento’s Mustard Seed School, although the Woodland district remains the primary focus.

In the future, Lillich and her board foresee helping needy children throughout the year, perhaps focusing on grieving children who’ve lost a loved one.

But right now, the volunteers are busy collecting donations and compiling the items and gifts for children’s wish lists.

“At Lee, kids whose names were on the list but didn’t know it would come in and give us their lunch money to help other kids,” says Tara Keegan. “One girl brought her Barbie, because she knew someone would want it.”

Because of Keegan’s connections with the Giving Tree, Elk Grove students are now participating – selecting names off the list and buying gifts for children they don’t know.

Like so many other people this time of year, they’re learning the value of giving, which pleases Keegan – and they’re learning it in Kylee Lillich’s name, which pleases the Lillich family.

“Kylee was so loved and so blessed,” says Traci Lillich.

And the Giving Tree wants to pass those blessings along to others.