EVERYTHING from tee times, to race times, to giving times 

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by Margaret Pilarski

In his professional career, Nick Gavalas always excelled, rising through the ranks of Mass Mutual and netting leadership and service accolades throughout. He began working as an agent with the company in 1972, and became General Agent of the South Carolina Agency in 1985. For most of his 38 years with Mass Mutual, Gavalas ran the area organization – but it wasn’t quite enough for him. 

“With all the success we achieved it wasn’t enough to satisfy me personally. I wanted something to do that was going to be different and unique and challenging – where we could serve an organization that’s underserved in the community.” 

In 1999, a Mass Mutual colleague introduced Gavalas to Dr. Ron Kolanko. Kolanko had been a longtime supporter of students with disabilities in Pittsburgh, making anonymous donations toward educational benefits. 

“Ron and I had a three-hour lunch. I listened to him, his passion and what he was doing with these students, and I learned what these students go through just to attend class –a lot of these students have medical assistants or special equipment. For some of them it takes hours to just get out of bed and prepare to attend class, in addition to the medical expenses that families bear, in addition to room board and tuition expenses that these students have to deal with,” says Gavalas. “When I heard all about that I said, ‘This is something we need to do in this community.’”

That first lunch became the start of the Gavalas Kolanko Foundation, an organization dedicated to ensuring education is within reach for students with sight, auditory and movement disabilities. 

The newly founded foundation’s mission was to find those students in particular who were “truly outstanding,” says Gavalas. Their requirements included grade point averages above 2.5 and active engagement on campus and in the community. 

That first year they gave just a single scholarship away to a student at the College of Charleston. 

Eighteen years later the foundation has given 135 scholarships to students at the six colleges and universities in Charleston: The Citadel, Charleston Southern University, The Art Institute of Charleston, Medical University of South Carolina, Trident Technical College and the College of Charleston.

And while Gavalas has been retired from work for years, the professional mindset is still the driving force behind his passion project’s successes. 

“When you’re a business owner or an entrepreneur, you’re always looking around a corner to see what’s next. When you look at it from a philanthropic standpoint, you’re also looking around the corner to find that same area that can be improved,” Gavalas explains. “Just like you can improve things for consumers and make a profit in business, you can also make a profit for the community, with beneficiaries being people in need. That’s what immediately came to mind when we started talking about this work.”

The primary vehicle for the Foundation’s fundraising and visibility over the years has been the James Island Connector Run, a race over the bridge that links downtown’s Calhoun Street to James Island’s Folly Road over the Intracoastal Waterway. The race has both 5K and 10K options with a bike component for the 10K, too. While it’s always attracted racers who are ready for six inclines, the view makes it an attractive option for people of all abilities, including beginner runners, walkers, families, and even dogs. 

This year’s race takes place October 28 and racers are treated to beer, food and a live band in Cannon Park when they finish. 

For those who prefer tee times to race times, the Foundation recently expanded to hosting a golf tournament as well. This year’s took place at Bulls Bay.

With nearly a million dollars raised for the Gavalas Kolanko Foundation, Gavalas says there’s still a lot to do. 

“We’re proud of what we’ve done but we continue to build it because there’s so much more work to be done in the community,” he says. In that vein, he’s expanded outreach through a second organization that focuses on life after graduation. 

Gavalas’ other network, Charleston Can, is dedicated to making Charleston a better place to live and work for individuals with disabilities. The group is made up of representatives from community stakeholders that focus on key areas: education, employment, housing, transportation and recreation. 

“It’s our job to collaborate so that we can improve the lives of all people with disabilities,” Gavalas says. “When you have parents come up to you and say, ‘My child is a senior in high school, they have a disability, what’s next for them?’ When you hear that over and over again, you say to yourself, ‘Our mission is to provide the answer to what is next.’ That’s our mission, to help these parents and the student to go on to live great lives. We can do better in Charleston.”

To register for the James Island Connector run, visit jicrun.com. For more information on Charleston Can, visit charlestoncan.org. For more information on the Gavalas Kolanko Foundation, visit gkfoundation.org.

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Laura Olsen

Houston, TX