Profile: As if They Were His Own
How TI gave a humanitarian the courage
to transform the world’s orphanages.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Photo Caption: Jim Luce, with youngsters in a Haiti orphanage.
The former Toastmaster heads up Orphans International Worldwide.
For Jim Luce, a trip to Indonesia to help a friend changed his own life. On a drive through the countryside in 1995, the former Wall Street investor made a fateful visit to an orphanage.
“I’m not sure why I stopped, but I felt compelled to do so,” says Luce. “The facility was clean but visibly struggling with poverty. There were six volunteers to care for 200 children.”
One of those children, a 10-month-old boy, stood up in his crib and reached out his arms when he saw Luce. “It was incredible,” says Luce. “Energy flowed between us, and it was as if he was saying, ‘I’m your child.’ I fell madly in love instantly.” Right then and there, Luce decided to adopt the child, who he named Mathew. Nine months later he took the boy home to New York City.
As excited as he was about adopting Mathew, Luce felt haunted by the other 199 orphans he had left behind. After telling his mother, a child psychologist, about his feelings, she suggested he stop complaining and do something about it.
“To humor my mother I began working on a feasibility study regarding orphanages, which ended up being 350 pages and took two years to write,” he says. “She agreed to edit the proposal, which looked at how orphanages are built traditionally and how they can be designed differently so that the occupants can bond with adults and become more mainstreamed into society. The document also addressed the idea of starting a nonprofit to build orphanages around the world.”
Just two weeks after he finished the proposal, his mother died suddenly. Luce was stunned to learn that she had willed him part of her estate so that he could start an organization for orphans. Not long after, his brother, Rick, who had been struggling with cancer, also passed away. But before he died, he made Luce promise that he would realize his dream.
“On his deathbed, Rick said he took my vision seriously, and he was leaving money in his will for the project. He also made me promise to become a Toastmaster so that I could learn to effectively communicate my vision.” Keeping his word, Luce joined the Roosevelt Island Toastmasters in New York City, where he was a member from 2001 to 2008.
Today, Luce credits Toastmasters for giving him the direction and courage to make his dream a reality. He heads up the New York City-based nonprofit Orphans International Worldwide, which has opened orphanages around the world in countries such as Haiti, Indonesia, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, the Dominican Republic and India. The group’s mission is to help orphaned and abandoned children grow to become solid citizens of the world, and its basic principle is simple: Everyone involved in the organization must treat each child in their care as if he or she were their own.
Linda Stanley is a Chicago-based officer of Orphans International, as well as a past member of the Roosevelt Island Toastmasters. She says the speaking and negotiation skills Luce acquired in Toastmasters help him on a regular basis.
“Jim is very positive and animated when he speaks, and he inspires confidence while sharing difficult issues facing orphans,” Stanley says. “For instance, he is in Sri Lanka today writing for the Huffington Post from personal interviews he is doing with children’s aid workers from the civil war conflict zone. His speaking and listening skills are carrying him through these challenging discussions.”
Luce ran the organization while working on Wall Street, but in 2004, when Northern Indonesia was devastated by an offshore earthquake that created the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami, the need for orphanages skyrocketed.
“Two weeks after the 2004 tsunami, I was in Indonesia standing in the mud trying to figure out what to do with all of the orphans,” he says. “We found a village that wasn’t hurt, talked to the village elders and got them to agree to build a project there.” During that trip he realized that he could no longer divide his loyalty between Wall Street and helping orphans, so he made a life-altering decision to quit work and donate all of his money, including his 401K, to Orphans International.
“I wanted to commit myself to helping orphans for the rest of my life, and I couldn’t do so halfheartedly,” he says. “By giving away all of my money, I knew that I was in it all of the way.”
Initially, Luce created orphanages from small homes that could house four children. While these were successful, he eventually found that a full-care model works better in many countries. Such a system incorporates extended family caretakers in a community-center setting that includes vocational training for the caretakers so that they can theoretically afford to pay for the children in the future. Health support is also offered, as well as computer literacy and English language training.
Luka Martin is director of Orphans International Tanzania. A native of the country, he has been impressed with the organization, and especially Luce. “Jim is a great man,” he says. “He is open to everyone and has offered his life to help others. The world needs a lot more Jims.”
Learning Compassion Early
Born and raised in Ohio, Luce was – not surprisingly – the type of kid who picked up stray animals; his first was a mutt that he got from the animal shelter when he was 7. Both of his parents were highly active in social change: His father led protests against the Vietnam War and was involved in Habitat for Humanity, while his mother was a leader in the Civil Rights movement.
Luce’s energy and capacity to help others seems to know no bounds. Stephen Chen, co-founder of GreenSoul Shoes, which strives to put shoes on underprivileged kids throughout the world, says Luce has been a mentor and a powerful influence.
“I’ve been inspired by Jim’s passion and his mission,” says Chen. “The fact that he took a vow of poverty is amazing in itself. I admire his concept of global citizenship, which really resonates with me. He has a good macro-view of the world, and he’s as adventurous today as when he started.”
When asked what keeps him motivated, Luce says, “If this were merely academic, I would never be able to sustain the energy needed to move forward. But it is all too real. I have come out of airports around the world, and been greeted by a dozen kids holding banners that say ‘Welcome Home, Uncle Jim.’ To know these children when they come into Orphans International – often in poor physical and emotional health – and see them year after year, growing into happy, well-adjusted individuals, is my greatest reward.
“My ultimate dream is to see an end to orphanages in my lifetime, with all children in need placed with extended families.”
For more information about Orphans International Worldwide, visit www.oiww.org. The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation www.lucefoundation.org funds the administration of orphanages. For information about Jim Luce, visit www.jimluce.com.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.