On any given day, maintenance worker Rikk Dunlap can be seen walking up and down the halls of Homewood-Flossmoor High School in suburban Chicago, sporting dragon tattoos on his forearms and a tool belt filled to the rim with equipment.
As he keeps the school running, students might not know his dream is becoming a reality this holiday season: At 57, Dunlap is set to see his yet-to-be-published novel play out in the new movie Christmas Under the Stars, premiering Saturday as part of the Hallmark Channel’s 10th-anniversary Countdown to Christmas series.
Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Dunlap was always drawn to writing, as it was one of the only things that could hold his attention.
“I didn’t exactly fit in,” Dunlap, now 57, tells PEOPLE. “I was shy and not really into sports and I wasn’t really involved in any extracurricular activities. I was kind of a drifter through high school. I loved English as a class but I wasn’t that good at it. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I sent in a letter to MAD magazine and that was the first time I ever saw my name in print.”
However, Dunlap put his literary aspirations on hold straight out of high school in favor of a more stable job at an engineering firm. Five years later, he got married to his childhood sweetheart. Life was good.
There was just one problem: “I knew I had a drinking problem,” he recalls. “My life was falling apart. I started getting into drugs on top of the drinking. I mean, I was sinking very quickly.”
One Saturday, after a day of drinking, Dunlap came home to a note waiting for him on the couch. His wife of four years had left him, and Dunlap knew that this time, it was for good.
“I had a decision to make,” he says. “I could grab that 357 on the couch and take care of things. Or I could take a breath, and give it one more day.”
The next day was Easter Sunday.
“I remember that a group of us were sitting in a house that had no heat or electricity,” says Dunlap. “We were waiting for the drug dealer to arrive. As soon as he walked in the door, I set my beer down, got on my motorcycle and left. That was my last drink. I never finished it.”
He’s been sober ever since.
“Getting sober meant having to deal with all of the anger and shame and confusion that I had been trying to hide for so long,” says Dunlap, who also has become a professional speaker in recent years. “That’s when I turned to writing. Writing saved me.”
One day, he was confronted with a memory of sweeter times — a memory that would become the backbone of his original, yet-to-be-published novel The Christmas Tree Lot, which would eventually turn into the Hallmark Channel movie Christmas Under the Stars. He started writing as fast as the memories came.
“I would always take the same route from my home to the train station and from the train station to home, and I would always see this Christmas tree lot come to life every November,” he remembers of the actual lot, located in Richton Park, Illinois. “I always loved the holidays, and when I would see that trailer get set up and the trees get put out and the tent built – I mean, it was my introduction to the holiday season.”
In August of 2017, Dunlap lost his job with the engineering firm he had been with for 37 years. But exactly one year later to the day, Dunlap signed his deal with Hallmark Channel to turn his holiday story about the sweet Christmas tree lot into a movie — the ultimate happy ending.
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“My dream is to write for a living,” says Dunlap. “I want to write books that make people happy and I want people to be changed in some way by my writing.”
He pauses for a moment.
“And I hope the students at Homewood Flossmoor realize that the guy they see walking in the hallway with the light bulbs in his hand and the tattoos on his arms had a dream and he made it come true,” he says. “And now they can too.”
Christmas Under the Stars airs on the Hallmark Channel on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. ET.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.