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Charles Tillman hosted his Cornerstone Foundation’s annual Holiday Celebration in December at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago for one simple reason.

“Just putting a smile on a kid’s face,” Tillman said. “No kid should go without Christmas. Even though you’re in a hospital, nobody should be robbed of a Christmas. My job is to spread a little holiday cheer, give them a present and make them smile. Make them feel good. Make them forget about being in the hospital at least for a couple of minutes out of the day.”

Tillman and his wife, Jackie, met with about 20 young patients and their families in the hospital’s Family Life Center, where he posed for photos and passed out autographed footballs.

The Family Life Center is a “medical-free” zone in the hospital where sick kids can just be kids and don’t have to worry about being poked or prodded by doctors. Spending time with Tillman, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Chicago Bears, made visiting the room even more special.

“It’s incredible,” said T.J. Johnson, Lurie Hospital’s senior major gifts officer. “It lifts their spirits. They’re just enthralled by professional athletes and he does such a good job of interacting and communicating with them and really treating each patient as an individual. I think a lot of that has to do with what he went through in his own family, just knowing what situation they’re in.”

Few pro athletes can relate to patients and their families in a children’s hospital like Tillman. In 2008, he and Jackie were informed that their three-month-old daughter, Tiana, was suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy and needed a heart transplant to survive.

Tiana eventually received a new heart and returned home with her family, but not before her parents had spent nearly four months around the clock at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

The Cornerstone Foundation was initially created in 2005 to provide children with educational opportunities and resources to excel in the classroom. But after Tiana’s medical ordeal, Tillman changed the foundation’s mission to improving the lives of critically and chronically ill children.

“He’s been through it.” Johnson said. “But I also think that he has a way of connecting with people that’s special and you don’t see that every day. He’ll really take the time to get to know their situation and what’s going on and he really wants to help bring some positivity to their day.”

During his visit to Lurie’s, Tillman met a young boy who was set to undergo surgery in two hours.

“He had his mom, dad and grandmother there,” Tillman said. “I was just talking to him about all my surgeries and just trying to keep him at ease and not be scared and tell him he was in good hands with the doctors and really just keeping him calm and giving him some words of encouragement.”

Most kids who are patients at Lurie’s have been moved there from their local hospitals to get advanced treatment for serious medical conditions. Spending time with Tillman is a great way for them to forget about their illnesses at least for a couple of hours.

“They love it,” Johnson said. “For the families that want to take a photo with him, it’s a lasting memory for them. They think it’s so cool that an athlete like him is taking the time out of his day to visit them. Everyone thinks it’s so neat and they really appreciate it.

"The autographed footballs he gives out are really nice collector's items. They now have something they can put on their shelves to remember that special moment. Those are the types of things that we hear, that it really brightens their day and helps them through the rough patch they're going through."