Christmas will come early for Chicago kids this week as actress/singer Jennifer Hudson and her sister Julia host their annual holiday toy drive beginning at 10 a.m. on Dec. 22 at Bellevue Ministry Center (10715 S. Halsted,) as well as their annual “Christmas To Remember” dinner (a private event with area students) on Dec. 21. It’s all part of the ongoing mission of the Julian D. King Gift Foundation. The sisters started the organization in 2009 as a tribute to Julian, Julia’s son who was slain along with the women’s mother and brother in the family home in 2008.

The foundation aims to “provide support, stability and positive experiences for children of all backgrounds to help enable them to grow to be productive, confident and happy adults” and does so with the annual holiday activities as well as a yearly school supply drive in August.

“I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years we have been doing this,” says Jennifer Hudson, during a break from shooting NBC’s “The Voice” and preparing to return home to Chicago for the holidays, where she still spends much of her time. “The thing that’s inspired us to continue on is when we see the families we connect with and that we have touched and have touched us. Sometimes we see them year-round and get to see their growth,” she adds. “We keep up with them and are truly invested.”

In fact, Julia Hudson lives in the South Shore neighborhood and drives a school bus where she gets to interact with many of the children who are benefactors of the foundation’s giving. “When we are doing field trips, I give them flyers and tell them to give it to their parents so they know to come to our events,” Julia says. “I know a lot of educators, too, so we send information their way to get the word out.”

Julia estimates that there are around 5,000 kids who receive free backpacks and school supplies in August via the back-to-school drive, and another 3,000 to 4,000 children who get toys for Christmas during the December event (the toy giveaway is first come, first served until inventory runs out). “So, over the years, if you multiply that, it’s been tens of thousands of children and families that have been impacted,” she says. Most are residents of the Englewood neighborhood where the Hudson family was raised, though “there are no boundaries” as to who can participate, says Julia.

Jennifer Hudson brings some Christmas cheer to a small child during the singer's annual toy drive in Chicago, co-chaired by her sister, Julia Hudson. | Thomas Blue Photography

Jennifer Hudson brings some Christmas cheer to a small child during the singer’s 2017 toy drive in Chicago, co-chaired by her sister, Julia Hudson. | Thomas Blue Photography

For the Christmas To Remember Dinner, each student must be nominated by someone other than a parent — such as a teacher, neighbor or mentor — and the final selection is made by the foundation board. Those chosen get to attend the private dinner with Julia and Jennifer and receive one of the gifts on a wish list they pre-submit. “This year, we have a few children coming who saw their mother die but they are still on the honor roll,” says Julia. “All the children are really from all walks of life.”

The Julian D. King Gift Foundation accepts donations year-round, and volunteers are always welcomed (more information can be found at the organization’s website juliandkinggiftfoundation.com). Jennifer, who contributes a sizable amount of money to the mission from her separate JHud Productions, hopes that in the coming years the foundation might even be able to grow its mission by partnering with other likeminded, civically engaged Chicagoans such as  Chance The Rapper and Common.

“That is a dream and goal of mine. We are all from Chicago, trying to do give back, and there’s power in numbers. It would be amazing if we all came together here and there to support each other, and hopefully that will manifest in the future,” she says, adding why it’s important to her to continue to host these activities in Chicago.

“There’s not only the fact that Chicago is our hometown and our mother always taught us to take care of home first, but we need options like this in the city. We need to have positivity be acknowledged and encouraged with our youth. Not just the negativity,” Jennifer says. “We want kids to know that we see you, we care and we want to support you. There’s nothing like making someone else feel blessed when you are blessed.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.