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January 2008

The Charleston Profile:
Paying It Forward
Written By: 
Stephanie Hunt
Photographs By: 
Lee Morris

Louie’s Kids founder Louis Yuhasz helps overweight children get on a healthy track


Two things are helpful when interviewing Louis Yuhasz: some tissues and lots of time. Be forewarned, before you ever get around to talking about him, you first get stories about other people—heart-wrenching and heartwarming stories about kids who struggle, as Louis did once upon a time, with being fat.

Meet Allie, a 13-year-old Michigan girl who, like most young girls, harbored Olga Korbut and Mary Lou Retton fantasies. Allie dreamed of turning somersaults, handsprings, and backbends, but at 200 pounds it’s hard to bend over forward, much less backward. So Louis bent over backwards for her. He found and funded a gymnastics tutor so Allie could begin an exercise program and take steps—and eventually leaps and roundoffs—toward her dream. “I could just hug and kiss you,” her grateful mother told Louis. “Allie is on her way to doing a cartwheel, and the self-confidence she’s gained is amazing.”

And meet 16-year-old T.J. from New Mexico’s remote Alamo Navajo Reservation, who at 350 pounds was in serious health trouble, suffering from diabetes and hypertension and—perhaps equally debilitating—feeling alienated and isolated from his friends. T.J. needed more help addressing his complex health issues than his reservation clinic could offer him, and though he lacked resources, he didn’t lack motivation. T.J. wanted to go to an intensive program to change his life and learn about healthy diet and exercise in order to come back to the reservation and help transform the lives of others; Louis helped him do that.

Then there’s Shawna, 15, of Boston, who with Louis’ support reached her goal of shedding 100 pounds (and counting), which led to a life-changing year of firsts: her first date, her first invitation to go shopping with her friends, her first time wearing a two-piece bathing suit. “I feel great physically and emotionally,” says Shawna. “Before, I was really hurting inside.”

When telling these tear-jerking tales, Louis’ big green eyes shine with warmth and optimism. Through his work with Louie’s Kids, a foundation he created to help fight childhood obesity “one child at a time,” Louis foresees a brighter future for lots of kids. Kids like Shawna, T.J., and Allie; children like Franklin of Mount Pleasant; and Danielle; and Andrikka; and Charles, who weighed a life-threatening 468 pounds; and hundreds of others. “This is my life’s work,” says Louis with equal parts conviction and enthusiasm. By offering scholarships to obese children whose families could not otherwise afford effective but expensive wellness-oriented summer camps, Louie’s Kids helps kids lose weight and get the emotional, behavioral, and educational support to keep it off.

The statistics are daunting: 25 million American children are overweight. Type 2 diabetes in children, an anomaly a decade ago, is now epidemic. Kids (and adults, for that matter) are eating more processed, high-fat foods and getting less exercise. The need is huge and growing bigger, pant size by pant size, every day. But that’s not the main reason Louis is committed to Louie’s Kids—his passion is personal. He knows from his own chubby childhood that fat kids are ostracized, teased, and bullied. He knows from watching his beloved father die that obesity kills.

Large Inheritance

Louis got his big heart from his namesake, his father—the man everyone in the Yuhasz hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, affectionately called Big Louie. “My dad was a compassionate, hardworking, big guy—exceptionally big,” Louis says. “Dad weighed 550 pounds when he died. He suffered a stroke and couldn’t get proper treatment because there wasn’t a CAT scan machine big enough.” Louis and his two sisters spent the last months of their father’s life watching him humiliatingly get shuffled from hospital to hospital, because no one wanted to deal with a cumbersome, difficult-to-bathe, hard-to-turn-over, 500-pound guy.

“My dad was my role model. He was always there for us—a wonderful man and father,” says Louis. “I wish he could have gotten to the soccer field, instead of having to watch from the car in the parking lot.” Aside from his physical limitations, Louis didn’t see his dad as any different from the father next door and never thought less of him just because there was more of him. And Big Louie never let his size curtail his work ethic and his generous spirit, but he struggled his entire life, enduring stares and prejudice, and his children saw how others treated him.

At age 13, Louis came to a fork in the road. He saw what was in the cards for him given his DNA and the fact that food was a big part of the Yuhasz family life. Louis’ mother was a sous chef, and he’d hang out after school in the restaurant kitchen with her, developing a lifelong love of the fast-paced food service business. But, he says, “I knew I didn’t want to get fatter; I didn’t want to be my dad. I was determined not to go to high school as a fat kid.” He lost 30 pounds that summer eating tuna fish and running laps around the high school track.

Today, he’s still a svelte, dedicated runner, currently training for February’s Myrtle Beach Marathon, and food is still a big part of his life. After high school, Louis earned a degree in Hospitality and Restaurant Management at Northern Virginia Community College and worked as director of sales and marketing for Fairfax Food Systems, the D.C. area’s largest paro­chial and private school lunch caterer for 10 years. After a year’s respite in Key West, Louis came to Charleston to study at Johnson and Wales University, earning his culinary degree in 1996, then returned to D.C. to be near his family. There, he helped develop Food Line, an online restaurant reservation business during the bustling dot-com era.

Along the way Louis met Fred, now his partner of 10 years. After Big Louie died in 2001, Fred and Louis moved back to Charleston, where Louis now operates Yuhasz Staffing Solutions, a specialized hospitality industry recruitment firm. “I’m really grateful Fred got to know my father; it’s made all the difference. I wouldn’t be where I am today, and Louie’s Kids wouldn’t be where it is today, without Fred’s encouragement and support. He always tells me to put down my pity stick, get up, and make it work.”

And make it work they have. Over the past seven years, Louie’s Kids has raised more than $200,000 to battle childhood obesity. Because it’s basically a one-man show (the tireless Louis does it all—the fundraising, PR, event-planning, coordinating with families) with little to no overhead, every penny goes to send kids to Wellspring Camp, a comprehensive, adventure-based summer weight-loss program, where they get to go rock climbing and hiking and “do things they never thought they could,” says Louis. “For some, it’s their first time in nature.”

Even Louis’ innovative fundraising events promote healthy living. This past year marked Louie’s Kids fourth annual Yoga-thon, a sun-salutation marathon in Charleston’s Marion Square that netted $25,000—a figure that can send six kids to camp. Last summer, he sponsored “Carmelita for a Cause,” bringing Italian chef and BBC cooking show host Carmelita Caruana to town to do healthful cooking lessons in people’s homes. Louie’s Kids has been featured on television shows such as Naomi Judd’s New Morning and Lowcountry Live, further boosting fund­raising and awareness efforts.

Commitment to Service

“My dad taught us that charity begins at home, that you help the guy hurt in the street. Today, these overweight kids are the ones who are hurting,” says Louis, whose empathetic streak was evident early on. At age 12, he won a Red Cross Volunteer of the Year Award for working with kids at an Alexandria day camp, and today he volunteers every week cheering up sick children at MUSC Children’s Hospital. “I’m as proud of that as I am of anything I do,” he says. “It’s real time. Kids are kids, whether they’re sick, or fat, or whatever.”

As Louie’s Kids gets increasing national attention and more obese kids and their families search the Internet for help, the organization is expanding its reach. Now Louie’s Kids also helps children year-round by offsetting tuition costs for the Academy of the Sierras, one of the most effective weight-loss and behavior modification programs in the country and the umbrella organization for Wellspring Camps. “We are trying to change the way people view ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity,’ and Louis is on the front lines of that fight every day. He is in the trenches and making a difference one child at a time,” says Ryan Madamba executive director of Academy of the Sierras North Carolina.

In addition, Louis helps kids like Allie, the budding gymnast in Michigan, find people in their community to support their goals. His big heart seems to have limitless elasticity. When the family of a North Carolina Louie’s Kids camper was hit with an exorbitant electric bill resulting from a broken furnace, Louis negotiated with the power company to restore service and covered the bill.

“I know my dad would be proud of this work,” says Louis. “He might not feel compelled to be the face of this cause, but I know he’d expect me to help someone not have to go down the difficult path he traveled. What I’ve learned is that service of any kind is how you’re expected to repay the kindness that’s been shown to you. I’ve got a beautiful life right now,” he adds, “and I realized I can accept this beauty and these things I’ve been given by helping others who may be struggling. It brings paying it forward to a whole new level.”

For more information on Louie’s Kids, visit www.louieskids.org.




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