In January 2001, Louis Yuhasz’s father died due to complications from obesity. A man who was loved by everyone he knew, his father, affectionately called “Big Louie,” weighed 550 pounds at the time of his death. In his grief, and stung by some humiliating experiences dealing with his father’s health care workers, the younger Yuhasz decided to dedicate himself to creating change one overweight kid at a time. Founded in 2001 in Alexandria, Virginia, and operated today out of Charleston, Louie’s Kids serves economically disadvantaged and overweight kids nationwide.

Louie’s Kids started as a simple scholarship in your father’s name to send kids to summer “fat camps.” Why did you see the need to do so much more?
I had no idea in 2001 when the fund was established how big a problem childhood obesity really is. As soon as we put up a website, kids from all over the country started finding us, looking for help.

What is involved in getting people committed to losing weight?
It soon became clear that kids and their families needed three things to succeed in losing weight: physical fitness, nutrition education and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). All three are critical to breaking the obesity cycle, and we built an organization that offers it all. Fourteen years later, we still use CBT counselors for both kids and their parents. We have learned that we can’t help a kid if the parent is not dedicated to the program, too.

In your own words, what is the ultimate goal of Louie’s Kids?
That we get a conversation started. The more we talk about childhood obesity, the more we become conscious—as adults and parents—of our own choices.

How big of a problem is childhood obesity in South Carolina? In the United States?
Huge. Nationally, the CDC reports that about 17 percent of our nation’s young people are obese. The most recent South Carolina Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that 14 percent of this state’s high school students are obese. South Carolina is the ninth “Unhealthiest State In America,” and our region also has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the country.

Beyond the issue of individual health, how does obesity affect South Carolina’s economy?
The current statistics are that, generally speaking, obese people spend 42 percent more on health care costs than others. Childhood obesity alone is responsible for $14.1 billion in direct costs, and it affects the state’s unemployment and disability costs, too. In South Carolina, we have one of the highest disability rates in the United States, according to a Cornell University study, and obesity is definitely one of the reasons why.

What is the most important thing you think parents should do to help prevent obesity in their kids?
Take away soda and juice and cook at home. It’s that simple. Artificial sweeteners in drinks trigger the same response in our brain as sugar does. Also, you can cook very healthy at home for very cheap. I can serve two people a full meal of salmon, spinach and a sweet potato for about $3.50.

What do you need the community’s help with the most?
Getting the conversation started. Please talk about the childhood obesity problem at your school, church, wherever you can. Serve on your kids’ school’s Wellness Committee [every school in the Charleston County School District has one]. The more we talk about it, the more educated we all become— and the more effective we can be in creating change.

If your late father could see what you’ve done with this organization, what do you think he’d say to you?
Truthfully, he probably would say, “Get a real job.” [Laughing] But I know he’d be proud.

What is one of your most memorable experiences in working with kids in your program?
Without a doubt, it was the first time I attended one of the summer camps. When you see 150 grossly overweight children laboring to get across a field or struggling to admit they don’t know how to play kickball or volleyball, your life is forever changed. I also remember every kid who drops out of our programs. No matter how many kids we’ve helped, it’s hard to leave one behind.

What are your future plans?
We need to find new ways to get families to participate in our programs together, to invest in healthy living as a family. Our organization’s future depends on helping one child at a time and that includes their entire household.

How long have you lived here—and what do you like most about living in the Lowcountry?
We moved here from Virginia on September 11, 2001. It was such a strange day. We had achieved this personal milestone of owning a beach house, but there was this cloud over it because of the tragedies that day. My favorite part about living here is the flora and fauna. I have always loved the outdoors and moved here to be outside.

How do you spend your leisure time?
My garden is a labor of love that has nursed a lot of my losses and heartache. I learned the art of gardening from my grandmother, and I connect with passed loved ones there, spending a lot of time with my hands in the earth.

For more information For more information, visit: louieskids.org.

Kira Perdue is a public relations professional and freelance writer based in Mount Pleasant.