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BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND DREAMS COME TRUE
That is what I learned from my Aunt Kay when I was a child. She was a National Teacher of the Year, who inspired others to be their personal best. I had a passion for writing, and she inspired me. Even today, more than 30 years after her untimely death, she still does. As a child, I was torn between following my dreams and doing the “right” thing, which was something I dutifully did my entire life. I went to law school because it was the practical thing to do, yet my passion for writing continued to spark. After law school, I clerked for a Federal Judge and was inspired to write a legal thriller…two actually. I thought I was going to be the next John Grisham overnight, but that never happened. Instead, I relinquished the reigns of fulfillment to a steady paycheck.
I followed a law career for 30 years. All the while, I continued my writing. In my 30’s I was inspired by a fortuitous box of Loukoumi candy to write a children’s book about a character named Loukoumi, meaning “sweet” in Greek. CBS News called Loukoumi “a fluffy little lamb that just wants to make the world a better place,” and that is exactly who Loukoumi is. The 9-book series, including Loukoumi’s Good Deeds narrated by Jennifer Aniston, inspired The Loukoumi Make a Difference Foundation, a non-profit that now encourages over 130,000 children in 30 countries worldwide to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others.
The Foundation sponsors a treatment room at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, The Chef Maria Loi/Loukoumi Foundation Teaching Kitchen for the homeless at the Floating Hospital, developed a curriculum at 300 schools and enlisted celebrity contributors including Jennifer Aniston, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Jon Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Eli Manning, Bob Costas, Gloria Gaynor and Misty Copeland, to name a few. Through the Foundation I have helped thousands of children believe in themselves so that they can change their lives by using their interests to make a difference in the lives of others. Their happiness is two-fold. By following their dreams, they accomplish their first level of happiness for themselves. By using their talents to make a difference in the lives of others, however, only then do they realize true happiness.
Recently I connected with a literary agent who encouraged me to tell my story to inspire others. I prepared an outline for a book, but the outline amounted to a puff piece about how doing good can change the world. The agent asked me to dig deeper, to reach into my soul and to recount the true journey, including the hardships, the setbacks and the lessons leading to where I am today. Only then could my message to others be meaningful. Upon much reflection, I realized that my journey was not complete, but merely midstream. True, I have created a life-changing vehicle for children through the Loukoumi Books and the Foundation, but rather than follow my own advice, I was stifling my dreams. How could I tell others to believe in themselves when I was not fully believing in myself?
I opted to follow the arduous journey of following my dreams, without risk, while at the same time pursuing a parallel career track that created a safety net for failure. For years I tormented myself by not going all-in. I was waiting for a “break” that would free me from this stalemate, but all along, marred by hesitation, I could not find the strength to relinquish the reigns of stability. By not allowing my passion to soar, with each passing day another part of my dream died within my soul. It also affected my health, both physical and mental.
“When I encourage children to follow their dreams, they often tell me they want to be a sports star or an actor. What I then tell them is they owe it to themselves to pursue their dreams, no matter how difficult it may be, and then along the road to being, say an actor, they may find out that they want to be a screenwriter or a movie director or a make-up artist, but if they don’t explore, they will never know.”
— Nick Katsoris
In July 2021, I had an enlightening conversation with a friend. He is of similar age and just left a major financial company. He was wildly successful, and I asked him, “Why did you leave?” He responded, “You know Nick, at our age, you have one good act left.” He explained he wanted to do something different with his life. Those words echoed in my head for weeks. It became evident that until a full commitment was made, only then could I attain true happiness. Without that, I could not with a clear conscience encourage others to pursue their dreams. I owed it to myself to dive deeper. I owed it to the children that I have encouraged. I realized that the most satisfying moments of my professional life were yet to be lived. I pledged to not only believe in what I was doing, but also to believe in myself, without reservation, and that is how this life-changing story begins…
On March 10 of this year, after 28 years as General Counsel of a New York conglomerate, I left to embark on that next “Good Act.” I am grateful for the opportunity to have served as General Counsel at such a young age. I learned a lot, and it made me who I am today, but it was time to move on. I have been appointed as an Arbitrator at the American Arbitration Association where I am hearing cases, something I always longed to do from when I was a law clerk, and I now have the flexibility to follow this great adventure that the Loukoumi Foundation has given me.
I chose happiness…
It took a lot of thought, planning and apprehension, but I am now happier in my professional life than I can ever remember. As a friend of mine recently said, I am where I need to be. When I encourage children to follow their dreams, they often tell me they want to be a sports star or an actor. What I then tell them is they owe it to themselves to pursue their dreams, no matter how difficult it may be, and then along the road to being, say an actor, they may find out that they want to be a screenwriter or a movie director or a make-up artist, but if they don’t explore, they will never know.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Never did I foresee that my love for writing would take me to a charitable foundation about a fluffy lamb named Loukoumi…and now, my time has come to explore. Since March 10, the road for Loukoumi has been bright. It started with my speaking at the World Happiness Summit in Lake Como, Italy, and visits to schools in Italy, Greece and Gander, Newfoundland, Canada (the town featured in the musical Come From Away). On 9-11 the town showed kindness to over 7,000 airline passengers whose planes were diverted to Gander because the US airspace was closed. On that trip we unveiled the Loukoumi Foundation Never Forget Letter Mailbox for families who lost loved ones on 9-11.
This September, we are launching our Loukoumi Foundation International Good Deed Council of Schools in 10 cities worldwide, where students from each school meet on Zoom to showcase their cultures and good deed projects, share ideas, inspire each other and plan global good deed projects together. Each school will also host a Loukoumi Good Deed of the Month Zoom with local speakers, student speakers and feature a project of importance to them.
I now visit schools on a weekly basis. Recently, a student asked me what my favorite part of my new job was, and I said, “I like helping people.” The young girl paused and said, “I want to help people too!” And through the Loukoumi Foundation these children are doing exactly that. They visit nursing homes and animal shelters, cook for the homeless, clean up parks and beaches for the environment, support charities that are personal to them and change the world in their own special ways.
The impact? Not only do the kids’ good deeds benefit the receivers of the good deeds, but the students as doers also benefit immensely with increased self-esteem, improved mental health and overall happiness in helping others. The impact is evident on their faces. Conservatively, each student impacts anywhere from 5 to 10 others making the total impact of these 130,000 children somewhere in the range of 500,000 to a million lives touched.
Over the years I have been inspired by many children, but one that always comes to mind is Lionel Li. When Lionel was 9 years-old, he won our Loukoumi Dream Day contest. He wanted to be a soccer star and I arranged for him to play with the NY Red Bulls. For years Lionel and his mother would frequent Loukoumi events, but then we did not hear from them for almost two years. Lionel’s mother eventually reached out and said that Lionel had lymphoma, but thankfully was better. She explained to me that when Lionel was in the hospital, the Make A Wish Foundation reached out to him and wanted to make his wish come true. Lionel asked for a trip to Disneyland Paris. When his cancer was in remission, Make A Wish said “OK, when would you like to go?” Lionel, however, said he changed his mind. Instead of spending money on a trip to Disneyland, Lionel asked Make A Wish to make a donation to Friends of Karen, an organization that helped him and his family when he was undergoing cancer treatments. Lionel’s mother called me after two years to tell me that Lionel did this because he learned at a young age through the Loukoumi books and the Foundation the importance of doing good deeds. Lionel is now cancer free, a graduate of the University of Michigan and a Loukoumi Board Member!
This is what the Loukoumi Foundation is all about. Our children need this. The world needs this. I needed this, and as I continue this next “Good Act,” I know the ripple effect of these good deeds, large or small, will not only change the world, but also these kids’ worlds, one good deed at a time.
This is what a happy world is to me