The 2-year-old took in everything she saw and felt frightened. She clutched her soft blanket for comfort.
This was the first of what would be many trips by Julia Gilmore to her local hospital in Chicago for ear, nose and throat surgeries throughout her early childhood.
She felt poked and prodded and cried at unfamiliar things. But she also noticed the hospital volunteers.
They played games with her, did arts and crafts and made her forget about the hardest parts of treatment.
They helped her parents relax and breathe out.
“They really just made me feel good,” said Gilmore, who is 18 now. “And I kind of took that experience, once I got better, of course, and was like, ‘I want to give back.’”
To offer the kind of comfort that had comforted her.
Helping the families of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital® through volunteerism and fundraising has become a key part of this savvy teen’s personal brand. She calls her efforts Gilmore Giving Tree and even has a website.
Gilmore, who’s raised more than $100,000 for St. Jude already, said she’s just getting started as she aims to help St. Jude cure cancer globally.
“I don’t think I can stop,” said Gilmore. Because her heart goes out to children everywhere.
“I know how they feel because I was a patient, too.”
I want to keep doing this
It all started with the idea of a blanket. Julia wanted to provide the kind of comfort to St. Jude kids that her childhood blanket had brought to her. And she wanted to be one of the helpers.
In 2014, when she was only 9 years old, Gilmore raised money and other hospital-approved donations for St. Jude. She was able to hand-deliver her donation to a St. Jude fundraising representative, a visit she called “extremely eye-opening.”
“I had never really been exposed to … that big of a community where they’re just so close-knit and, really, just working hard to cure cancer. And I was like, ‘I want to keep doing this.’”
Now she holds a yearly St. Jude fundraiser during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.
To promote her fundraisers, she posts videos to her social platforms, makes phone calls and sends letters to businesses to request donations. She posts flyers throughout her community.
By her sophomore year in 2020, word of Gilmore’s volunteer efforts for St. Jude and other charities had spread throughout her Johnson City, Tennessee, community. Fellow high schoolers looking to fulfill community service hours reached out to her for guidance about how to plug in.
That’s when Gilmore Giving Tree “blew up,” she said. “I needed somewhere to kind of put all that information and organize it, so I was like, ‘Let’s make a website.’”
Through it, she coordinates a volunteer program to benefit causes, including St. Jude, that help children worldwide. She also raises money and gifts for St. Jude and provides resources and how-to tips to connect other young people with community service.
In June, she received the Congressional Award Gold Medal, the highest honor for youths awarded by the United States Congress, in recognition of her service to others.
People always say yes
“Nobody will listen to you the first time, but when you ask them the second time, people always say yes,” said Gilmore.
It was 2022, and Gilmore was giving a Zoom presentation to fellow members of the St. Jude Leadership Society (SJLS). These teenagers were her fundraising peers — all young philanthropic leaders themselves— but she’d been asked by her mentor, St. Jude fundraising employee Amy Junge, to be a fundraising coach.
She’s “clear on who she is, where she comes from, and absolutely clear on the importance of leading with integrity and giving back to her community,” said Junge.
Vishal Swamy, an SJLS member who watched her that day, called her talk “life-changing.”
Swamy’s grandfather died from colon cancer in 2013, which drew Swamy to the St. Jude mission and SJLS. But he said he worried he’d be rejected when he asked for donations.
By recasting an early fundraising failure as a necessary step to success, Julia’s words changed his mindset. He raised $2,500 for St. Jude that year, and his confidence surged. He credits Julia for that.
It’s part of who I am
Sustaining Gilmore Giving Tree consumes a significant part of Gilmore’s life as she strives to not only keep her volunteer postings up to date, but also ensure her website truly reflects who she is.
“I’m always editing my ‘About Me’ as I’m changing,” said Gilmore. “I just added that I’m starting at UNC Chapel Hill. That’s something that’s a new chapter in my life that I’m excited about. And if people want to learn about that, it’s part of me. It’s part of who I am. So yeah, pictures, events, different things. I’m always adding and changing.”
Examining her life in writing may have changed its direction. She always thought she wanted to be a doctor, but that’s not true anymore.
“I took all of the sciences and medical classes that my school offered, which was a great opportunity, but I realized it wasn’t for me. I realized I was better at writing and speaking. So, I’m going to double major in journalism and global studies.”
She’s launched a new fundraiser to support the global efforts of St. Jude to cure pediatric cancer worldwide.
St. Jude will need her support more than ever, and she said she’s happy to give it.
She said that she likes that no family ever receives a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food and that St. Jude research can help sick children everywhere.
"They have the intent of sharing it with hospitals all over the world, and that’s just a community that I want to be a part of, you know?”