Suzan Zoukis knows firsthand what it's like to raise a child who thinks the rules don't apply to him.
Her personal struggles have led her to believe all children could benefit from being taught how to behave, make good decisions and build healthy relationships.
That's the mission of WINGS, a Charleston-based nonprofit that teaches students social and emotional skills in an after-school setting, and Zoukis and her husband, Stephen, committed Monday to invest $1 million in the organization during the next two years to help accomplish that goal. The funds will be used to help the group expand nationally.
"I see where the money goes, and this is the most tightly run organization I've ever been a part of," said Suzan, who's served on the WINGS board for the past three years. "Every penny is well-spent. It's a wonderful program, and I would love to see it grow."
WINGS serves 460 kids in four Charleston County elementary schools: Memminger, Chicora, North Charleston and James Simons. More than 3,500 students have come through its program since it began in 1996.
WINGS plans to serve another city in an out-of-state market by next school year, and cities being considered include: Charlotte, Atlanta, Baltimore and Jacksonville, Fla. A decision should be made by January.
The Zoukises moved to Charleston in 2006 after having lived in Atlanta for 35 years. Suzan Zoukis was looking for a group to get
involved in, and Ginny Deerin, the founder of WINGS, was one of her neighbors.
Suzan Zoukis visited one of the WINGS programs in 2007 and became a board member the following year. She said the program puts into words and activities the lessons that many parents expect their children will learn intuitively.
"It's something that kids need to be taught," she said.
She and her husband come from middle-class families, but she said they've been blessed through her husband's career as an attorney and partner in a real estate investment firm.
They initially planned to donate the money through their will, but they knew WINGS' national expansion would require significant fundraising. Their donation gives WINGS the financial backing necessary to make that leap, and the group hopes to raise $4.5 million during the next four years and expand into three regions.
"It's an exciting and challenging time for us, and as we expand, our fundraising needs will increase," said Bridget Laird, WINGS chief executive officer. "We couldn't be happier."
Although the Zoukises, who've been married 40 years, said it would've been more comfortable to anonymously donate the $1 million, they hope doing so publicly will encourage others to give to WINGS and other deserving educational programs.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, an outspoken advocate for WINGS who once memorized its 157-word creed to earn a $10,000 donation for the nonprofit, said their donation is a new benchmark in Charleston's philanthropic community benefiting children. He and other community leaders thanked the Zoukises for their gift publicly on Monday.
Their gift "rises all tides in the most important asset in our community - the children," said Chris Kerrigan, president of the Trident United Way.
At Chicora Elementary in North Charleston, where the nonprofit announced its $1 million donation, students in the WINGS program were learning the theme of their week's lesson - understanding the difference between wants, needs and blessings.
Students listed blessings such as games, clothes and their house. The blessing WINGS leaders would've listed was obvious.
Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546.