Roosevelt Islanders

From Roosevelt Island, Jim Luce Touches the World

David Stone
Jim Luce, Co-Producer, International Happiness Day At the U.N.
Jim Luce, Co-Producer, International Happiness Day At the U.N.

Jim Luce is unassuming, even here on Roosevelt Island. Chances are, meeting him, you’d never guess that he’s twice been awarded the Certificate of Congressional Recognition for his work with orphans or that he heads two international nonprofits, among his many commitments. His is no calculated act of self-effacement. Doing good is ingrained in him. It seems as natural as driving a bus would be to someone else.


"One of Roosevelt Island's not so hidden treasures is Jim Luce,” City Council Member Ben Kallos said in a statement to 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." 

As I write this, Jim Luce is a few days from being honored, along with Manhattan Borough President  Gale Brewer and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, at the Super Health Happy Kids Black Tie Gala for 2016, but when I first met him, fifteen years ago, we were both newcomers. We had just been elected to the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association Common Council. 

What I’ll never forget is how Luce refused to take his responsibilities  as a Council Member lightly, even as a volunteer. With little time to waste, he was eager to roll up his sleeves.

Over the next several years, we’d run 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. 

Although I didn’t know much about Orphans International, the group Luce founded that was then in its infancy, some things in his character stuck with me — his disarming sincerity, his love for children and 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 reaching deep. 

When he mentioned domestic problems, his concern was with the way disruptions affected children and deciding on the best way to limit any damage.

In a broader sense, Luce is predisposed to service. He’s all-in with it. It’s what he does. It’s as if working to make the world a better, more compassionate place is fused into his genes.

And it might be.

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.” 

He asked himself, “How could I use what I have to help?”

Fate stepped in and provided an answer that went on to set a direction for the rest of his life.

Eventually, Luce emptied out his personal savings and left a lucrative career to commit himself to the betterment of all those street kids wasting away in places most of us will never see, especially the orphans, many on the verge of being discarded like human refuse.

Charity Starts at Home

Jim Luce sees this philanthropy from both ends of the telescope. While he talks about the expansive growth of Orphans International and it’s evolving work, he never strays far from the day when, following an impulse, he dropped in on an orphanage in Indonesia.

This was 1995, long after the concept of warehousing children in orphanages had been discredited in America.  But sidetracked in Indonesia, finding conditions even worse than he imagined, Luce’s curiosity also brought him face to face with an irresistible ten month old boy. 

“They had no toys,“ Luce later recalled in a conversation with the Main Street WIRE.  “Their clothes were full of holes.  The place was clean but unbelievably poor.”

The circumstances were so dire that, when Luce was allowed to remove the child with whom he had somehow connected, he was asked to leave the ragged shirt he was wearing behind so that another child could use it.

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 Luce’s mother, but that might have been 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, which is 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 and proposed a plan for change.

Although Luce insists, “People thought I was nuts,” because of his obsession, he was able to recruit fifty people to help him make it 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

As an organization, “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.”

The drive is not so much about sweeping away orphanages, but in making them unnecessary by creating alternatives similar to what Luce and his mother envisioned.

Its mission statement is clear: “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.”

This is lovingly known as “Mathew’s Rule,” recognizing Luce’s first rescue.

Two decades after Luce’s impromptu visit to that Indonesian orphanage, the organization he founded 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 2016. What’s the word for it when you’ve already 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 exchange sums up a lot about his life these days, but it misses the larger picture.

What it misses are the diverse activities that prevent him from reading his  emails, 5,000 of them and counting. For him, service and philanthropy is about showing up, about doing. And he always seems to show up.

I saw him most recently at the opening reception for Memory-Continuity, an exhibit of works by Romanian artists Marin and Alina Gherasim at Gallery RIVAA, the local artists’ collective he supports in both word and deed. 

He talked with me about this article while simultaneously networking with Gallery President Tad Sudol.

Multi-tasking was necessary because Luce had to leave soon to attend a function for the Indian Film Festival where he somehow finds time to contribute as a Board Member.

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

An idea began to crystalize 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.” Its work is in supporting young leaders who will work for “positive social change.”

He continues as the foundation’s President as he does with OIWW. 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 Luce’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 is also an active contributor to the Huffington Post, where his primary topics are Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. His most 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 Luce 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 soon 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. 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.

From Roosevelt Island Jim Luce Touches the World is the latest in our series, "Roosevelt Islanders," people who live and/or work on the Island that you might want to know better.




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