Jim Luce touches the world, but you may have missed it. He’s unassuming, even at home on Roosevelt Island. Meeting him, you might never guess that he’s twice been awarded the Certificate of Congressional Recognition for his work or that he heads two international nonprofits.
by David Stone
His is no calculated act of self-effacement. Doing good is ingrained in him.
For Luce, it’s as natural as driving a car to anyone else.
“One of Roosevelt Island’s not so hidden treasures is Jim Luce,” City Council Member Ben Kallos told the Daily.
“As founder and CEO of Orphans International Worldwide, Jim has done great work to help children and families on a personal level. Outstanding citizens like Jim are the backbone of the Roosevelt Island community, and I am proud to represent them.”Ben Kallos, New York City Council Member
In 2016, Jim was honored, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, at the Super Health Happy Kids Black Tie Gala.
Coming a long way in a short time
When we became friends, fifteen years ago, we were newcomers. We served on the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association Common Council.
Even then, Jim refused to take volunteering lightly. He was eager to roll up his sleeves.
Over the next several years, we ran into each other while riding up the long escalators from the subway after work. Walking along Main Street past Blackwell House, we’d catch up on the fly, the way casual friends do.
Orphans International was in its infancy, but you sensed the promise. It was in his character, his disarming sincerity, his love for children, the steady glow of compassion stitching it all together.
Walking along with Jim Luce wasn’t like walking along with anyone else. There was always substance, something deep.
He had domestic problems, but he worried, not about himself, but with how disruptions at home affected children. He sought the best way to limit any damage.
Jim Luce touches the world. It’s a family thing.
Jim Luce is predisposed to service. He’s all-in with it. It’s what he does. Working to make the world a better, more compassionate place is fused into his genes.
Son of a child psychologist and a French professor, Luce pondered his “marching to the beat of a different drummer,” in a Huffington Post article.
“I have traveled this path, perhaps, since witnessing my parents protest the Vietnam War and march for civil rights and social justice.”
In the same article, he described “…seeing the horror of street children in Bogota, Colombia thirty years ago. Abject poverty first repelled me in my youth, but eventually engaged me.”
“How could I use what I have to help?” he wondered
Fate stepped in and and set a direction for the rest of his life.
Jim emptied out his personal savings and left a lucrative career to commit himself to the betterment of street kids. He saw them wasting away, many on the verge of being discarded like human refuse.
Charity Starts at Home
Jim Luce sees philanthropy from both ends of the telescope.
He talks about the expansive growth of Orphans International, but he never strays far from center. That’s the day when, following an impulse, he dropped in on an orphanage in Indonesia.
This was 1995. Warehousing children in orphanages had ended discredited in America.
Sidetracked on an impulse in Indonesia, he found conditions worse than he feared. Paradoxically, his curiosity also brought him face to face with an irresistible ten month old boy.
“They had no toys,“ Luce recalled in a conversation with the Main Street WIRE. “Their clothes were full of holes. The place was clean but unbelievably poor.”
Circumstances were so dire that, when Jim was allowed to remove the ten month old child with whom he’d connected, he was asked to leave the ragged shirt he was wearing behind so that another child could use it.
Through saving orphans, Jim Luce touches the world…
Flash forward twenty years, and the infant Luce adopted in Indonesia, Mathew, attends college and serves on the board of Orphans International Worldwide.
OIWW was founded with money from the estate of Jim’s mother, but that was the lesser of her contributions.
After Mathew became her grandson, Frances Dudley Alleman-Luce worked with her son to conceptualize a more humane alternative to the deplorable conditions from which Mathew was rescued.
That became the design that shaped OIWW’s mission to move children away from warehousing to shelters where they can experience a family structure.
Before launching the project, Luce spent three years hammering out a 350 page report that described the tragic situation of poor children in Third World countries. It was a plan for change.
Luce insists, “People thought I was nuts,” But he recruited fifty make his obsession happen. By the summer of 2002, OIW was ready to provide a home for its first four children in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
A Mission To End Orphanages
“OIWW believes the greatest number of kids can be served when neighbors, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are provided with the means to care for orphaned children after a crisis has passed.”Orphans International Worldwide
The drive is not so much about sweeping away orphanages, but in making them unnecessary. OIWW build alternatives modeled on what Luce and his mother envisioned.
“All children in the care of Orphans International Worldwide must be given the same love and security that each of our team members would give to their own children.”OIWW Mission Statement
This is lovingly known as “Mathew’s Rule,” recognizing Luce’s first rescue.
The organization Jim founded now supports care for orphans and abandoned children in twelve countries on three continents.
“This is mind-boggling,” Luce exclaimed, shortly after opening his group’s second shelter in Haiti in 2002.
He’d just discovered that Prince Albert of Monaco had signed on to support the OIWW mission. There was also a contribution from Peter Yarrow, the legendary folk singer, and a pledge from his own father.
It’s 2019, and OIWW has blown way past “mind-boggling?”
An International Citizen On Roosevelt Island
“Text me with any questions,” a message from Jim Luce read. “My email just topped 5,000 unread. Don’t count on me seeing any email.”
That sums up Jim’s life these days, but it misses the larger picture.
What it misses are the diverse activities that prevent him from reading his inventory of emails, 5,000 and counting. For him, service and philanthropy means showing up and doing. He always shows up.
We met recently at a party he through to celebrate summer and call attention to RIVAA, the local artists’ collective.
The group thanked him with an oil by Romanian legend Valeriu Boborelu.
For most of us, being the leader of the rapidly expanding OIWW network would be enough, but for him, it is not.
A fresh idea crystalized after his father’s death in 2008 and evolved into the James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation. Its dual objectives are to “offer micro-grants and ‘spotlighting’ to individuals and organizations bettering humanity in the fields of the Arts, Education, and Orphan Care.”
Jim Luce touches the world… then touches it again.
Its work is in supporting young leaders who will work for “positive social change.”
He serves as the foundation’s President as he does with OIWW, and Mathew, who seems to be picking up his father’s habit for pitching in wherever a need arises, also serves on this board.
Rounding out what seems like an already full life is Jim’s prolific career as a writer. In The Stewardship Report, the Luce Foundation’s communication platform, the theme is “Connecting Goodness.” He contributes articles on dozens of topics, from animal welfare to veterans with many stops in between.
As wordsmith, he’s also been a contributor to the Huffington Post, where his primary topics are Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. His recent article, Jumping for Joy, is about International Happiness Day 2016 at the United Nations.
Out for a walk one afternoon, getting some air between my own writing gigs, I ran into Jim doing the same. Walking along the river on the east side of Roosevelt Island, we compared notes about how much writing we were able to get done when facing a deadline.
I realized my output, of which I was reasonably proud, paled next to his.
The craziest part of that, of course, is that writing is not his primary occupation and not even his secondary. The well-crafted words tumble out of time spared after fundraising, administration and leadership.
Come to think of it, maybe the reason he’s so unassuming is that he just doesn’t have much time to let his ego out for a public airing. He probably doesn’t even have time to think about it.