It’s rare that a song literally saves a life, but that was the case with actress/singer Jen Lilley’s debut single “King of Hearts.” In fact, she orchestrated it that way because she is a foster parent with a deep passion for children’s causes.
Until now, Lilley has been best known for her work in front of the camera on shows like “General Hospital,” “Days of Our Lives,” and several Hallmark Channel movies, including the upcoming “Mingle All the Way,” which premieres Saturday, December 1 at 8/7C. But singing has always been in the back of her mind.
During a recent interview with me on “Christopher Closeup,” Lilley recalled, “I started singing when I was 9, but I wasn’t confident singing in front of people, unless it was worship. I helped lead worship at my church for years, so that was comfortable because when you’re leading worship, the attention is on God, not on the singer – or at least it shouldn’t be. I have stage fright, so I put [music] on the back burner, and pursued acting because I’m not afraid of the camera.”
While starring as Theresa Donovan on “Days of Our Lives,” Lilley decided to record “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with her TV husband, Eric Martsolf. The single – produced by Grammy-winner Rob Christie – was a success, so she recorded an indie Christmas album called “Tinsel Time” the following year.
In 2016, Lilley connected with music producer Adrian Gurvitz, who had recently launched singer Andra Day’s career. He wanted to work with Lilley, so they started the process of writing and producing songs with a retro 60s vibe, reflecting the kind of feel-good music she wanted to put out into the world. More importantly, Gurvitz pushed Lilley to develop her voice beyond anything she’d ever thought was possible. Therefore, there is no Autotune on “King of Hearts” or her upcoming album. It’s all her singing.
As “King of Hearts” was getting ready to launch, Lilley knew she wanted the proceeds to benefit a worthy cause, so she chose Project Orphans, which she had recently become familiar with. The charity was founded by Brittany Rae Stokes, who runs a children’s village in Uganda for orphans and kids in foster care.
At first, Lilley wanted to help cover their monthly operating costs, which would help 73 children and 300 families. But then she saw that a boy named John needed heart transplant surgery that would cost $6,500. That seemed like a manageable goal to Lilley, so she invited her fans to buy her single and save a life.
Lilley said, “We raised the money for John and for their monthly operations through March. I’m still doing direct donation on my website, donating the net proceeds to their organization. My long-term goal is to start my own charity here in the States in order to have a village like that. I’m still talking to doctors and psychologists to figure out what’s best for children. It’s not an orphanage, but my idea is to maybe have a subdivision of foster homes that are ‘foster to adopt,’ so it’s a bunch of amazing parents that are in it for the right reasons, that are committed to loving these children. Then if the children become available for adoption…they’ll be placed in a home where they can find permanency, and they’re not just aging out of the system. That’s a long-term goal, but I always want my music to do something charitable, because I think that’s what life is about.”
The reason that foster parenting is close to Lilley’s heart is because she and her husband Jason are foster parents themselves and are now in the process of adopting the son that has been with them for more than two years. In addition, they’ve welcomed his little brother into their home.
Lilley recalled that, initially, she was hoping for a child that was elementary school age, particularly the 8-year-old girl she and Jason had been mentoring. But that plan didn’t go through so the agency asked them to take in a four-month-old boy with special needs. Lilley felt very reluctant to do so, but ultimately agreed. She now calls it “God’s divine appointment.”
She said, “That process ever since has been the most rewarding, emotionally stretching, and spiritually stretching journey of my life. I would do it again, 100 times over, and I hope to foster until I die.”
The experience has also deepened her love and appreciation for Jason, who is in charge of the kids when she is working out of town. Hallmark Movies shoot in Canada, but as a foster parent, Lilley doesn’t have the authority to get them passports and take them with her. But she is at peace knowing that Jason is more than up to the job of caring for the two boys. “It’s been incredible for our marriage,” she said. “If you already have a good marriage, I highly suggest throwing kids in the mix because it opens up your heart on a whole different level.”
The latest Hallmark Movie Lilley shot – and her first role in one of the network’s popular Christmas offerings – is “Mingle All the Way,” which she doesn’t just star in, but also helped bring to the screen.
After reading the script by writer Samantha Herman, Lilley thought it had the feel of a classic Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, so she pitched the story to Hallmark executives, who also loved it.
Lilley plays Molly, a hard-working app developer who is tired of getting invited to holiday parties with a “plus one” when she has no special someone to bring. She therefore creates an app called Mingle All the Way.
Lilley said, it’s “a platonic ‘plus one’ networking thing where you can be partnered with a like-minded business person who also needs a plus one. You can just go to each other’s holiday parties and have fun. You match personality-wise, but you’re not looking for anything [romantic]. And of course, the two start falling for each other.”
The movie premieres Saturday December 1 at 8/7C, and will re-air throughout December as part of Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas.
In Lilley’s home, the countdown to Christmas has also begun, and she’s looking forward to it more than ever because of her two foster children. She declares herself “pro-Jesus and pro-Santa,” noting that her parents always made sure she knew that Jesus was the reason for the season. “We read the Bible story on Christmas Eve,” she recalls, “and I believe children can understand more than we give them credit for.”
Lilley adds that her 2-year-old doesn’t know who Santa is yet, but when she explains it to him, she’ll make sure he understands that Santa is based on St. Nicholas, who was known for helping the less fortunate. She and Jason are passing that ideal on to the boys as well by going through the toys they don’t play with anymore and donating them to charity.
It’s a fitting piece of synergy for a woman whose life and work stay focused on helping those most in need. You could even say that Lilley is one of those special people who embody the Christmas spirit all year long.
(To listen to my full interview with Jen Lilley, click on the podcast link):