The lure of a strawberry sundae crunch bar was undeniable one recent afternoon outside St. Mary's School for the Deaf when James Karagiannis rolled up on his cargo bike, carting an ice chest full of frozen treats.
The Ice Creamcycle Dude had arrived, and judging from the line of children that formed in front of him, Karagiannis was in for a lively afternoon.
But Karagiannis faces a daunting task – giving away thousands and thousands of frozen treats paid for by $36,000 in donations from kindhearted people from Australia to the Virgin Islands.
The story of the Ice Creamcycle Dude from Buffalo struck a universal chord, and people could not get enough of this 37-year-old free spirit who biked through underserved neighborhoods to give frozen treats to children unable to buy them.
The frozen treats were distributed with one string attached – the children had to write thank-you postcards that were addressed and mailed by Karagiannis to the donors. They are an essential component of his business plan, allowing Karagiannis to mix in some family values with the Jolly Rancher Bomb Pops.
Karagiannis stopped accepting donations in June, almost a year after he was flooded by requests from people wanting to help pay for the ice cream he was giving children. He and his team of 10 workers could not distribute the ice cream fast enough. At a dollar a pop given away over a six-month stretch, it would take until the end of 2018 to spend all the money, Karagiannis figured.
He explained his decision to take down the funding link in a Facebook post last month.
"It was always intended to be so that no kid was ever denied ice cream because of their inability to pay. So we will continue seeking those kids out and we will spend the extra minute with them, having them write their thank you notes and making them feel cool, however long that may take."
Teach your children
This summer Karagiannis shifted his attention to large groups of children, focusing on special needs schools, underserved community centers and Boys and Girls Clubs.
First he distributes his postcards, designed by Ezekiel Miner, a student at Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts. Karagiannis then speaks to groups of children gathered in classrooms and auditoriums on the importance of saying thank you. Finally, he dishes out ice cream in exchange for completed post cards from the kids.
"We've given away a little more than half so far," he said of the funding. "Why would I continue to collect money when I still have to give away $18,000 in ice cream? I want to see how these assemblies work."
At St. Mary' School in Buffalo, the courtyard was alive with the sounds of nearly 100 students from infancy to age 21 experiencing the Ice Creamcycle Dude – a phenomenon that included girls and boys getting rides on Karagiannis' cargo bike.
Elliana Sanders, pretty in pink from head to toe, waited patiently to give Karagiannis her thank you card. Elliana, who is 10, had cancer when she was 4 and lost her hearing after chemotherapy. She has since received a cochlear implant with a pink external earpiece. She uses both English and American Sign Language to communicate. Elliana's speech is flawless.
"I want to thank him for the ice cream," Elliana said, responding to a reporter's question signed by Joy Higgins, school principal.
"This is a huge opportunity for us to pair an academic activity with a highly motivated activity like eating ice cream," noted Higgins. "Writing is not always easy for all of our kids because English is a second language. Their first language is American sign language."
After visiting St. Mary's, Karagiannis rode to the Boys & Girls Club at 397 Northland Ave. The day before, he visited Buffalo PS 84 Health Care Center for Children at Erie County Medical Center. Later in the week, Karagiannis will bike to Westside Community Center at 161 Vermont St. At each stop, Karagiannis bikes away with a backpack full of handwritten postcards from the children.
"I tell them a little bit about thank you notes and why they're good to do," he said. "Every once in a while there will be an extremely polite kid, and I always try to tell them that. I tell them they were 'caught doing awesome.' "
Karagiannis is treating this summer as a trial run for his next project, taking the school assembly approach on the road. "How amazing would it be if I figured out a way to pop a cargo bike on a trailer and spend winters going to schools across the country?" said Karagiannis, who has wanted to be a teacher since childhood
Each winter for the past five years Karagiannis has traveled, backpacking at hostels in New Orleans, Colorado, Central America, Asia. On Phu Quoc Island in South Vietnam, where white sand beaches and tropical waters attract global travelers, Karagiannis discovered a motorized ice-cream scooter vendor. For years, he's lamented the limitations a cargo bike puts on his business.
Steep inclines, like the Statue of David hill by Delaware Park in Buffalo, are avoided. Conversely, Linwood Avenue's downhill is divine. With speeds averaging 8 to 12 mph, Karagiannis and his colleagues bike from 15 to 18 miles each day. Recently, Karagiannis logged a 26-mile day.
"We're really limited where we can go," Karagiannis said. "I saw an ice cream scooter in Hong Kong a few years ago, but I saw them over and over in India. I get home and called like 50 places looking for one. No one I called will add the freezer sidecar, and no one will insure motorcycles for business use."
For now, Karagiannis will stick with his cargo bike – and his altruistic commitment to both ends of the ice cream chain.
Recently, 100 thank you postcards that Karagiannis collected from a school assembly were packaged and mailed to one donor.
Ron Caudle lived in Puget Sound, Wash., when he made the $100 donation after watching a story featuring the Ice Creamcycle Dude on television news.
"I like the idea because you're giving kids something and you're teaching them to say thank you," Caudle said. "I wrote the check out almost a year ago. It's nice to know you donated to kids, and that's cool. More people should do it."
Caudle and his wife, B.J., who are both retired and in their 70s, have since moved to Phoenix, Ariz. They are taking their time going through the postcards, said Caudle, who remains impressed by Karagiannis.
"I had no idea who the guy was," Caudle said, "but he sure is creative."