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On Make a Difference Day in 2012 in Cranston, R.I.,, Nick Lowinger with the help of 78 volunteers provided shoes to 496 kids in six states through a nonprofit he started called 'Gotta Have Sole.'
On Make a Difference Day in 2012 in Cranston, R.I.,, Nick Lowinger with the help of 78 volunteers provided shoes to 496 kids in six states through a nonprofit he started called 'Gotta Have Sole.' / David Yellen / USA WEEKEND
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Tony Danza has had lasting career success: He played iconic roles in TV’s Taxi and Who’s the Boss. Earned an Emmy nomination. Appeared on Broadway. Had his own talk show.

But in 2009, Danza’s career took a not-so-obvious turn when he put Hollywood on hold and fulfilled a lifelong dream by spending a year teaching 10th-grade English at Philadelphia’s gritty Northeast High.

“Actually, it was 181 days, but who’s counting?” Danza laughs. The “revelatory” experience, which was filmed for an A&E reality show, inspired Danza to write a best-selling book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had.

Deeply concerned about education in the USA, Danza wanted to see firsthand what teachers — and students — face.

So he rolled up his sleeves and taught Julius Caesar and To Kill a Mockingbird. He helped coach the football team and organized a talent show. His final day, he received a plaque inscribed with a fable about a man who finds thousands of starfish washed up on a beach and begins throwing them back in the ocean, one by one. When a friend says it won’t make a difference because there are too many starfish to save, the man picks up another and throws it in the water. “It made a difference to that one,” he says.

“I don’t know if I got ’em in the water, but maybe I got ’em a little closer,” Danza says of his 26 high school students, with whom he stays in touch.

Now, Danza says he is honored to be the keynote speaker for the Make A Difference Day Awards, presented Thursday, April 25, in Washington, D.C. Among the honorees is 15-year-old Nick Lowinger of Rhode Island, who created an organization that provides new shoes for homeless kids, and who is seen with Danza at left and on this week’s cover.

“A lot of people would love to help, but they don’t know what to do,” Danza says. “When you see kids finding a way, you think, ‘Well, maybe there’s a way I could do it, too.’ If that kid doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what will. This is the kind of thing that changes the world, little by little.”

Danza points out that the motto on America’s seal is “E Pluribus Unum,” or out of many, one.

“Make A Difference Day gives you a chance to be vested in your community and country,” he explains. “We’ll be better off if we’re all in this together.”

Danza returns to the big screen this summer in Don Jon, also starring Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore.

More In Make A Difference Day

Make A Difference Day, the largest national day of helping others, is sponsored annually by USA WEEKEND Magazine and its 800 carrier newspapers. Make A Difference Day takes place on the 4th Saturday in October each year.