NEW YORK–One does not have to be an adult to make a difference in the world, and simple acts of kindness can be profoundly meaningful for both the one performing the act and the one benefiting from it. One career attorney is helping kids give back to their communities and make a positive impact in the world. Interestingly, the entire movement started from a piece of Greek candy, and a desire to write a children’s book.
Nick Katsoris is a native New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, and he’s been practicing law for 25 years. From a young age, Katsoris had always enjoyed writing. In fact, his aunt was a National Teacher of the Year who became a great inspiration for him. His father encouraged him to go to law school, but his aunt urged him to never give up on his writing.
Katsoris began working for his school newspaper, and also wrote for other publications during college. After working for a federal judge for two years, he wrote two legal thrillers.
“I thought I was going to be the next John Grisham, but it never happened,” Katsoris told The Epoch Times with a laugh.
Katsoris was in his kitchen one day with his wife, and they had just received a box of candy called loukoumi from friends who had been on vacation in Greece. The Greek delight is a jelly candy covered with powdered sugar. After a moment, he looked at his wife and asked if Loukoumi might make a nice name for a children’s book character.
A year later their son was born, and Katsoris decided to write a book series about a lamb named Loukoumi who does good all over the world. He self-published “Loukoumi” and before he knew it, the book became number four on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list.
In this first story, Loukoumi goes to Greece on summer vacation. However, Loukoumi gets lost and travels all over Europe meeting friends who help Loukoumi find her way home. The first book is about friendship and helping others. The career lawyer was understandably excited that his first book had been a success.
“My dream of becoming a writer had come true. Everything my aunt had told me when I was a kid had come true, so I wanted to then encourage other kids,” Katsoris said.
The second book in the series entitled “Growing Up with Loukoumi,” is about what kids want to be when they grow up, and urges them to follow their dreams. The story teaches kids that if they work hard and believe in themselves, their dreams can come true.
Kids and Their Dreams
After the second book, Katsoris decided to create a program that could help kids achieve their career dreams, so he started Loukoumi Dream Day. Children submitted cellphone videos that are 30 seconds or less that describe what they want to be when they grow up and why.
The first winner wanted to be a Mars rover engineer. Katsoris called NASA and told them that there was a nine-year-old girl who wanted to pursue that career. They told him they were landing a spaceship on the planet Mars on Memorial Day Weekend 2008, and that she could watch the Phoenix spaceship land on Mars from the mission control room.
“We were able to make it happen, and it was unbelievable,” Katsoris recalled.
In another instance, the program was able to arrange for a kid to play football with Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
“There’s always a point when these dream days are happening,” Katsoris explained. “What I tell those kids is if you don’t follow your dream, it will never happen. But even if you follow it, on that path you never know where that road is going to take [you]. You may want to be an actor and it may be tough, but along the road you may decide you want to be a screenwriter, or a director, or a make up artist, and that’s kind of what happened to me. I wanted to be a writer.”
The Mars experience became the catalyst for what would become the Loukoumi Good Deed Movement. The third book in the series, “Loukoumi’s Good Deeds,” is the story that inspired the movement. The book teaches children to go out into the world and do something kind for someone else, to make a difference, and to do a good deed. Jennifer Aniston narrated the audiobook, which led to Katsoris’s work with St. Jude Research Children’s Hospital.
The book led to another real-world project called Make a Difference with Loukoumi Day in 2009. The first year, 200 children went out and did a good deed that meant something important to them. The project ultimately led to the Good Deed Bus, which began in New York in 2013. The school bus stopped at an animal shelter to donate supplies, a homeless shelter to donate food, and a park to help clean up. Ten years later, 100,000 children in the United States and Canada are involved in the movement. This year, there were four Good Deed Buses in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Gander, Newfoundland. The goal is to have 10 Good Deed Buses next year.
“It’s just a great day because the kids have fun doing all kinds of good deed projects, and they’re there with their friends, and it makes them realize that doing good or being a little junior philanthropist can be fun and it makes them feel great about themselves,” Katsoris said.
Katsoris’s most recent book was inspired by his previous work and the musical “Come From Away,” which tells the story of the airline passengers who were stranded when U.S. airspace was closed during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
One of the producers from the musical, Judy Abrams, had come to visit Katsoris to ask him a legal question, and had learned about the Loukoumi Foundation, which Katsoris founded after his numerous independent projects. The producer urged Katsoris that they needed to do something together because the theme of kindness in the musical was at the heart of the Loukoumi Foundation’s mission.
This most recent book “Inspiring Stories That Make A Difference,” is a collection of 75 essays by kids all around the world who are trying to make a difference in their communities. Throughout his work, Katsoris has been able to gather a multitude of stories from the children.
“I’ve heard these stories, and experienced a lot of these things that these kids have been doing, and I wanted them to be heard because I was inspired by what they were doing and I knew that other people would be inspired,” Katsoris said.
The week the book was released, Katsoris went to Gander, Newfoundland, where the musical “Come From Away” takes place.
“When I saw the play, I thought to myself ‘How great can this town be? How kind can these people really be?’ And it’s all real,” Katsoris said.
When he arrived, most of the school he was going to work with was there to greet him. They had planned a Good Deed Bus of their own, with nine stops along the way.
Since these students weren’t born yet at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, they went to all of the places where their parents and grandparents had done good deeds for the stranded airline passengers, and in turn performed their own acts of kindness.
Katsoris and the students went to the animal shelter to donate supplies, the hockey arena to donate equipment for kids who couldn’t afford it, and the Salvation Army to donate canned goods.
“At each stop there was a person who had experienced 9/11 back in Gander, and they came on the bus and they spoke to the kids about what had happened up there,” Katsoris recalled.
A Whole Week
The most emotional experience of the day was when they visited a peace park just outside of Gander. While the students were there, they planted a tree in memory of those who had perished during September 11, 2001, and as a way of thanking the residents of Gander for helping the stranded airline passengers. Afterward, they painted kindness sayings on rocks and placed them around the tree. Right next to the tree was a large piece of steel from the north tower of the World Trade Center.
“So now we have this symbolic tree right next to this piece of steel that just means so much, and it was just a great, emotional day,” Katsoris recalled.
However, one day of kindness wouldn’t be enough for Katsoris. This year was the inaugural Make a Difference With Loukoumi Week, and Katsoris flew to St. Jude Children’s Hospital after the trip to Gander to open a treatment room and literacy program so patients could go back to school after their treatment without falling behind. The project was funded not by large corporate donors, but by small donations from children ranging from $1 to $5. The foundation was able to collect $60,000 dollars to open the facility, and has pledged an additional $150,000 over the next five years to fund the program.
The next event during the Make a Difference With Loukoumi Week was at the September 11 Memorial Museum. The students were able to learn about what happened during that infamous day since they had not been born yet. The following project involved the kids writing letters to those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001, telling them that they’ve learned about the attacks, and they’ll never forget about what happened. At the same time, the kids made a small donation to fund a permanent exhibit at the museum.
“Basically what we’re doing is we’re trying to encourage them and planting the seeds in them that will last throughout their lives, so that they’ll learn how to be compassionate, and how to be kind, and how to deal with philanthropy because they’re going to be the leaders of the future,” Katsoris said.
Kids Doing Good
Make a Difference With Loukoumi Week ended this year with a new program called Loukoumi Feeds the Hungry. Maria Loi, owner of the restaurant Loi Estiatorio in New York City, has been involved with the foundation for years, and came to Katsoris with an idea. She told him she wanted to throw an event for him, and all he had to do was attend.
Loi gathered seven celebrity chefs to host an event at the New York Athletic Club to launch Loukoumi Feeds the Hungry. Loi will travel to different schools to cook with the kids, and then they will deliver the meals to homeless shelters. This first year, they were able to provide 81 free meals for the homeless in association with an organization called The Soup Run.
Katsoris has also created a Loukoumi curriculum that is featured at over 300 schools across the country. Each month, students read one of the Loukoumi books and then the students create a good deed project of their own based on the theme of each book. When these kids grow up, they’ll be better adults and have more resources to do good.
“If we can instill in kids to be better people, and more importantly to want to be better people, and to enjoy being better people for others, then it becomes effortless, and then it becomes a way of life for these kids because they’ll be adults before you know it,” Katsoris said.
“They’re changing their worlds with their good deeds, and if you start changing enough of their worlds you’ll change the world,” Katsoris said.