Jim Luce and his life’s work at making a difference

Jim Luce and his life’s work at making a difference

You may miss it if you don’t follow Jim Luce around the world. He’s laid-back, even on Roosevelt Island at home. Meeting him, you might never guess that he’s twice been given the Certificate of Congressional Recognition for his efforts or that he leads two international organizations.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

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Jim Luce with the Dalai Lama.

Jim Luce and his work

This isn’t the act of a Machiavellian manipulator. Doing good is in him. For Luce, it’s as natural as driving a car to other people.

“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.

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.

In the matter of a few years, he has come a long way.

We were newbies when we became friends 20 years ago. We served on the Roosevelt Island Residents Association Common Council at the time. Even then, Jim was not a complainer. He was eager to get his hands dirty. During our daily trips up the long escalators from the subway after work, we’d catch up with one another. He was then still working on Wall Street, but things were changing.

Yet it was obvious that something huge was brewing. You sensed the potential. It was in his character, his disarmingly honest demeanor, his devotion to children, and the steady radiance of compassion that bound it all together. It wasn’t like walking beside anyone else when walking with Jim Luce. There was always substance there; something fundamental.

He had domestic issues, but he was concerned about how disturbances at home would affect the kids. He was looking for the most effective technique to minimize any harm.

Jim Luce touches the world. It’s a family thing.

Working to improve the world and make it a more compassionate place is in the DNA of Jim Luce. He’s fully committed. It’s what he specializes in. Jim Luce, the son of a child psychologist and a French professor, reflected on his desire to ” march to a different drummer,” according to a Huffington Post piece.

“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 intervened, directing his future. Jim emptied his personal funds and left a lucrative job to devote himself full-time to helping street kids. He witnessed them wasting away, some on the verge of being thrown away like garbage.

Charity Starts at Home

Philanthropy is seen from both ends of the lens by Luce. He discusses Orphans International’s expansion, but he never strays far from the center. There was the day when, upon a whim, he stopped by an Indonesian orphanage unannounced.

This was 1995. Warehousing children in orphanages had ended, discredited in America. 

He was sidetracked in Indonesia when he encountered conditions worse than he had feared. His desire for knowledge paradoxically brought him face to face with an adorable 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.”

Jim Luce with Hurricane Jeanne orphans in 2008.

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.

Saving orphans, Jim Luce changes 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 teamed up with her son to create a more humane alternative to the horrible circumstances from which he was rescued. This became OIWW’s mission to move children away from warehousing and into shelters where they can live in a family setting.

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Luce spent three years working on a 350-page report that detailed the tragic circumstances of neglected children in Third World countries before launching the initiative. It was a transformation plan.

“People thought I was nuts,” he recalls

But he recruited fifty people to help him realize his ambition. OIW was prepared to welcome its initial four children from Sulawesi, Indonesia, in the summer of 2002.

The 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 goal isn’t to demolish orphanages; instead, it’s to remove the need for them. OIWW created alternatives based on what Luce and his mother had in mind.

“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.

Jim’s organization now aids orphans and abandoned kids in twelve nations on three continents.

“This is mind-boggling,” Luce exclaimed, shortly after opening his group’s second shelter in Haiti in 2002.

He’d just heard that Prince Albert of Monaco had joined the OIWW cause. A donation from Peter Yarrow, a legendary folk singer, and a promise from his own father rounded out the list.

These days, OIWW has blown way past “mind-boggling?”

Roosevelt Island’s International Citizen

“Text me with any questions,” a text from Jim Luce read. “My email just topped 5,000 unread. Don’t count on me seeing any email.”

That is Jim’s current situation summed up, but it misses the point.

It also doesn’t account for the various tasks that prevent him from reading his massive email inbox, which is now up to 5,000. For him, service and charity imply showing up and performing. He’s always there when the time comes.

We met before the pandemic grounded most gatherings at a party he threw, celebrating summer and calling attention to RIVAA, the local artists’ collective. The group thanked him with an oil by Romanian legend Valeriu Boborelu.

More

For most of us, leading the rapidly expanding OIWW network would be enough, but for him, it is not. 

A fresh idea crystallized after his father’s death in 2008. It 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.”

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.

When Changing the World Becomes Your Habit

Jim’s successful writing career rounds out what appears to be a full life. The theme of the Luce Foundation’s communication platform, The Stewardship Report, is “Connecting Goodness.” He writes about dozens of issues, from animal welfare to veterans with many stops on the road.

As a wordsmith, he has contributor to the Huffington Post, where his primary topics are Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. His article, Jumping for Joy, is about International Happiness Day 2016 at the United Nations.

I was walking along the river on the east side of Roosevelt Island one afternoon, between my own writing projects, when I ran into Jim doing the same. We compared our experiences while confronted with deadlines.

I discovered that my output, the volume of which I was reasonably proud, paled next to his.

The most interesting aspect of that, of course, is that he is not a writer by trade or even as a secondary occupation. After fundraising, administration, and leadership time is given over to writing carefully crafted sentences and paragraphs.

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 may not even have time to think about it.

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