It’s summer, it’s hot and muggy, and it’s impossibly hard to cool down, especially in the inner city neighborhoods. Then a guy comes by on a bike, an ice cream bike, and relief is within reach, except for one little problem. You’re a kid whose family hasn’t much, even enough for an ice cream. So you stand to the side and watch and salivate and wish you could have an ice cream.
This scenario is not so unusual and it’s why I particularly love what James Karagiannis of Buffalo is doing for kids in his community. He’s the perfect example of how one person can generate a smile in a second and make a difference.
In his upstate New York hometown locals know James as the Ice Cream Dude, and what a dude he is. In 2007 he started a bicycle ice cream business, sort of like the ole musical ice cream truck, only it’s a cart of frozen treats connected to his bike. He doesn’t charge a lot for his ice cream novelties, just a buck a piece, but for some kids who have nothing, even that is too much. From the start he encountered a dilemma—how to help out these kids without giving them a handout.
He says that “one of the hardest parts about being an ice cream dude is seeing the disappointment on a kid’s face when all of their friends buy ice cream but they’re left out because they don’t have a dollar.”
While he says that he has the latitude to give away freebies he can’t afford to give to every single person. “Trust me, we get asked a lot!”
He adds that he doesn’t like just giving something away to a kid “without at least trying to teach a lesson. We’re in these neighborhoods every day and are a part of these kids’ lives; we have the responsibility to be positive role models.”
He came up with a way to teach them a lesson while being a positive role model and giving them the ice cream they want. He makes them earn the ice cream by answering questions, a quiz.
“They love questions,” he says “and I love that I’m teaching them things. I would have been a teacher if I wasn’t an entrepreneur.”
James makes it fun while making the kids feel that they earned their ice cream, which he ensures they do.
“I let them choose their subject, but often times it’s easiest to pull a dollar out of my pocket, tell them I’ll give them the dollar if they can tell me the city it was printed in. I give them clues, for example, San Francisco would be ‘there was a gold rush here in 1849.’ They can’t figure that out until I have them draw the connection between the football team and the meaning of 49ers.”
Answering questions doesn’t always work out for every kid, so he came up with another idea. “If they want a free ice cream, they’re going to have to write a thank you note.”
And boy, oh boy, have those kids been writing thank you notes! James thought that the thank you cards would be a nice because he personally appreciates personal thank you cards, something you don’t see much these days. A lost art.
“For years people have been giving me a few bucks to buy ice cream for the next group of kids I see. I thought the thank you cards would be a nice gift for them while teaching the kids in the process.”
Another reason he decided to have the kids fill out the cards is because the people who donate money never get to see the joy on the children’s faces when he gives out the treats. The cards work both ways.
“Now there’s an opportunity to put a smile on someone’s face and receive one in return,” he says.
The process is pretty simple. For anyone who donates he has the kids write thank you notes, which James mails to the donors. The thank you notes do just as much for the donors as the kids.
“Maybe it arrives in your mailbox long after you’ve forgotten about it, maybe it arrives on a day you could use an extra smile.” James just loves the idea of helping the kids and showing them how they can express appreciation.
Oh, and I almost forgot, he’s so humble all he sees is the goodness in others. When asked what’s his favorite part of the job he said “when a kid who only has $1 offers their ice cream to a friend, sibling, or parent. Totally selfless. I always buy those kids an ice cream.”
James says that there are eight of them on the ice cream bikes and each of them does something extra for the kids. All of them have the kids fill out the thank you cards, but each has an extra thing they like to do with the kids. James asks questions and sometimes races his bike with them.
“Rex likes to shoot hoops with the kids. He gives them a freebie if they make a three point shot. Jerrod likes to do science experiments.”
Ice cream on a hot, sticky day, giving back, and having fun in the process, ah, life is sweet, it doesn’t get much better than that.
What do you think—is James’ idea cool or what? Leave me a comment.