After her 'Big Fat Greek Wedding,' Nia Vardalos made a big decision on how to be a mom.

Nia Vardalos is a star on the big screen, but she didn't think she would have a chance to be a star as a mom.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images.


Remember "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" from back in 2002? If not, do yourself a favor and rent it. The movie is a classic, but don't just take my word for it. To date, it's one of the top 10 highest grossing independent films of all time.

And guess what?

GIF from "My Fat Greek Wedding 2."

After 14 years, Nia Vardalos and her on-screen family are returning for seconds in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," hitting theaters on March 25.

Despite all the success, however, Vardalos' life off-camera hasn't been all glitz and glamour.

Vardalos and her husband, Ian Gomez, wanted to raise a child badly but struggled for years to start their own family. They even turned to in vitro fertilization and adoption.

But nothing worked.

Then, their luck turned when they got a call about a little girl.

14 hours: After years of waiting, that was the amount of notice Vardalos and her husband received when they were matched with a 3-year-old girl living in a California foster home. Their world was about to be turned upside-down, but it didn't bother her one bit.

The emotional pain and rejection she faced for almost a decade allowed her to feel only one emotion: gratitude.

Vardalos is loving motherhood with her daughter. Photo from Nia Vardalos, used with permission.

"I'm thankful for my biological and adoption disappointments because they led me to my daughter," Vardalos told Upworthy. "When I met my daughter, everything went quiet because I knew she was the one."

But it wasn't smooth sailing at first.

Her new toddler didn't care about her new mom's Oscar nominations or successful films. Understandably, she wasn't happy with her environment, and she made her new parents aware of it.

"She was scared and angry," Vardalos said. "I spent as much time with her as possible to soothe her to make her feel safe as a part of our family."

So Vardalos made a choice: She took a break from Hollywood to focus her energy on her new role as a mom.

Vardalos knew she needed to make some big decisions to make her daughter feel safe and loved, and that's exactly what she did. Because of her hectic travel schedule, she didn't take acting gigs for three years in order to volunteer at her preschool, transition her daughter into her home, and eventually help her make the leap to kindergarten.

But Vardalos did her part to provide for her family. "Sure, I'm an actor, but I'm a screenwriter, too," she said. "In order to make a living, I took writing gigs."

She knew all along taking time away could mean losing her acting career altogether. But she did it anyway.

"At the time, I knew the risks of walking away from all things Hollywood, and if the phone stopped ringing, so be it," she said. "It's an understatement to point out that helping my daughter feel safe is more important."

Vardalos and her husband have the same hopes, dreams, and fears as other parents. Photo by Robyn Beck/Getty Images.

Now Vardalos wants to help other parents who are experiencing the same adoption challenges that she did.

Vardalos' daughter is 11 years old now, and she's thriving. But Vardalos knows there are plenty of other parents still struggling with the ups and downs of adopting children.

"The truth is, that's difficult to navigate through the adoption process," she said. "There are many people who prey upon folks who seek parenthood." So Vardalos wrote a book called "Instant Mom" that provides information on how to adopt children from all over the world. It went on to become a New York Times best-seller.

This book helped a lot of parents. Photo via Nia Vardalos, used with permission.

Vardalos is proud of the fact that the information in her book has helped to place children in permanent homes. "That makes me feel useful," she notes.

Best of all, she puts her money where her mouth is. All book proceeds are donated directly to adoption groups.

Vardalos knows that adoption isn't for everyone, and she advises everyone to do what feels right for them. To her, nothing feels more right than being a mom to her daughter.

"My eyes and heart have been opened permanently, and for that I'm thankful."

True

Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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