Nikki DeLoach is a well-known Hallmark star who got her start on The Mickey Mouse Club and starred on the breakout MTV hit, Awkward.
She knows a thing or two about the business, but she hasn't let it go to her head.
It's quite the opposite, as she uses her enviable position to help organizations that really need the assist.
I've spoken with Nikki before, but this time, it wasn't directly related to a specific project (although she does have a Hallmark movie airing on Saturday, September 25), which allowed me to dig deep into her passion projects and what makes her tick.
Looking through Nikki's notable projects and charitable works reveals she's got a big heart and a desire to make a difference. She and her long-time friend and writing partner, Megan McNulty, had a lot of project pitches, and as they're both people of faith, the Fugitive Safe Surrender program caught their eye.
They recognized that although many people claim to be of faith, their work doesn't speak to it. Nikki said that sometimes, people forget what Jesus was all about. "Jesus went towards those who are most vulnerable. He was all about second chances. He was all about where is their need? Where do I need to go to help people?"
Nikki and Megan chose to walk in the way of Jesus, and the Fugitive Safe Surrender program offered a unique opportunity to do that.
"When we looked at this project, we saw, not just three men in Jim Plousis, who was at the head of all of this. We looked at Father Mannion, who was a man of the cloth who had walked side by side and helped Mother Teresa with her work on this earth for over 20 years. And then we looked at Reverend Parker, who had this incredible church in Camden, New Jersey.
"So it was the three of these men, and also the people that came together around them to create an initiative where they could give people a second chance at living life.
"In Camden, New Jersey, at the time, there were so many warrants, it was considered to be the worst state in the country, New Jersey. But especially Camden, there's so much violence and so much crime.
"And they really started looking at how they can actually systematically help people. So they came together and created a program called Fugitive Safe Surrender, where if you turned yourself in at the church.
"And they did it at the church because they wanted people to know, this is a safe space for you, right? And if you turn yourself in, there were judges there. It was a giant undertaking."
Nikki was surprised to learn how many outstanding warrants were for minor offenses, often requiring a monetary transaction to set someone free.
"It all came back to the fact that there were no financial means for people to be able to really do what they had to do so they could have their freedom in the world. And so they went before the judges, the judges looked at their case, they set aside payment plans."
This program was a success and duplicated time and again. "By the end of it, they had been able to give over 18,000 people in the state of New Jersey a second chance at life," Nikki said.
Nikki thinks that now, more than ever, that people in leadership positions at church or behind badges "need to remember the heart that is behind your badge, and the heart that is underneath that cloth. And understand that your job is to be of service.
"And if we're not doing that, then we need to really sit down and think about our why. Why are we in the job? Why are we doing what we're doing? Is it to help people? If it's to help people, then let's start thinking about how systematically we can do that."
For Nikki and Megan, it seemed like a no-brainer. She's in awe of the number of people who worked together to achieve what many believed was impossible. Now, Nikki and Megan hope to inspire others by showcasing Fugitive Safe Surrender.
"We're doing a movie about it. We're doing a documentary version of it, and we're also doing a movie about it," she said.
"These men and these people that were involved, we've had the blessing of being able to sit with them and talk to them and get to know them. And I have to say, what an undertaking any actor is going to take, stepping in the shoes of one of these men. Because they are truly three of the most outstanding human beings and funny and incredible."
How the program transformed Camden cannot be overlooked, as the recidivism rate for those helped has been incredibly low.
"That's the thing that we have lost complete vision and sight in our country. There is a human being behind [these cases], whether it's a crime or misdemeanor, or a traffic violation, or whatever it is, or even if you're a police officer, or if you're a person of the cloth. These are human beings.
"And we often forget, we like to just tuck people away and make our comments and make our stereotypes and just move on about our lives because it's easier to put people in boxes and call them something than to actually sit down and get to know who they are, and get to know their story."
When Nikki speaks about this program, her enthusiasm is infectious. It sparks a desire to reach out into your community to see what you might be able to do to help.
She's adamant about the importance of reaching out because everyone will need a hand up at some time or another. Nikki hopes that we'll "actually look each other in the eye and see a human being on the other side."
As we chatted, we agreed that punishment couldn't be the go-to answer for victimless, non-violent crimes. The prison system has minimal resources to help turn around a life. At the same time, those working hard on the outside in programs like the Fugitive Safe Surrender program can move mountains with an alternative solution.
"Another thing I think that's so heartbreaking is I don't understand how people can't look at their lives and see privilege that they have had. Right? Like, yes, you may have had to work really hard to get where you are. Yes, you might not have been born into money. Yes, all those things are true.
"However, what you don't understand is just one thing could have gone sideways in your life, and you could have ended up in that exact situation, you know? So I think that what we lack as a country is a tremendous amount of empathy.
"Some people are born into the cyclical patterns of poverty, and how do you get out if you have no one that can help you if you have no one that can give you a leg up if you don't have anyone that can help you through school, whether it's your studies, or if maybe you have a single mom who's working all the time, and there's no one at home to help you."
Nikki hopes that we can come together to address the cyclical nature of these situations. Doing that would ensure that the people in our country have access to everything from preventative care to rehabilitation and educational resources. Then, fewer people would find themselves going in circles without a way to move forward.
As Nikki and Megan work through the many moving parts of creating a documentary and an accompanying fictional portrayal of a story very close to their hearts, Nikki is also involved with various Alzheimer's organizations in honor of her father and grandfather, who were each affected by some form of dementia.
While Nikki's grandfather got dementia after a series of strokes, her father's story begins in his 50s, when the vibrant and compassionate man began "showing signs of memory loss, but the biggest thing with him was his complete personality shift."
Nikki said, "We couldn't really understand at the beginning, especially, because my dad was the kindest, most loving, most incredible man, incredible father you'll ever meet.
"And all of a sudden, he began to withdraw and his empathy, he lacked empathy, and he wasn't interested in his family. Which all of these things were red flags because his family was the most important thing to him and his wife, period, end of story."
As he began to change, Nikki's family wanted to chalk it up to job stress and other daily stressors that had him out of sorts. Nikki disagreed and, using everything she had ever studied, urged her mother to take her father to get checked out.
They received the news they didn't want to hear. Nikki's father had a rare form of frontal temporal dementia called Pick's disease. One moment, he had a future, and the next, he was advised to get his affairs in order because his health would deteriorate rapidly.
"It has been the most brutal pain that I have ever felt," Nikki said of losing her father. She has seen her son through three heart surgeries, and what she experienced with her father overwhelmed her. But, instead of wallowing, her loss drove her to action.
"it's just honestly fueled my fire, even more, to raise money and to bring awareness to this. Because the thing is, is we used to think about Alzheimer's and dementia as this old person's disease.
"This is something that old people got, until people younger and younger and younger and younger began to get this, and the numbers are astounding. It's only going to get so much worse moving forward. And the numbers are going to end up quadrupling over the course of the next 10 to 15 years."
Nikki hopes that as the numbers increase, spending to find a cure will increase, as well, not just for a cure but preventative measures, too. Genetically predisposed individuals can take steps to ensure prolonged brain health, for example.
"And so Alzheimer's Association, I got involved with them the second my dad was diagnosed. I just showed up and said, 'What can I do? How can I help?' because this is taking people younger, it's taking my dad, and we have to figure this thing out."
Liz Humphrey, whose mother has Alzheimer's, started Mind What Matters, and Nikki is a board member.
"She started this podcast that then became an organization where we financially support caregivers of loved ones who have Alzheimer's and dementia. It is the only organization that does this. That is our sole purpose.
"Yes, there are organizations that definitely will help out here and there with the caregivers. But our sole purpose is to help caregivers, especially those who are younger, who are taking care of their parents, and they're having to quit jobs, they're having to leave college, they're having to completely alter the future of their lives to stay home and take care of loved ones.
"And so we are looking for those people. And we are giving grants to them to help them so they can bring in somebody else. So they can go to college, so they can do those things that they need to do for themselves."
Nikki is using the platform available to her to make a difference, whether it's calling attention to those who need help the most or finding organizations whose story needs to be told so that together, they can inspire a similar spirit in others.
Part of what allows Nikki to focus on others is what she has experienced in the entertainment business.
She still cannot believe that, out of thousands of other young hopefuls, she landed a part on the Mickey Mouse Club alongside fellow cast members Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and JC Chasez.
"When I look back at it, it was literally a dream come true. And it still is. And every single day on that show was a dream come true. I mean, I got to do what I love to do."
Nikki was also thrilled to be with other children like herself, who liked to sing, dance, and perform. Like her, they were just a little bit different than the other kids their age.
"The people who have come out of that show are some of the most incredible people that I've ever known in my life. And I'm so close to so many people today from the show.
"And so there's that and then, on the professional side, and I can just tell you that show was, it was almost like a conservatory in terms of if you wanted to be an entertainer or performer," Nikki said.
In their last season, they were putting on three live shows a week and performing in music videos and drama series. In addition, they had interviews and special appearances and learned a lot about hard work. They also knew the importance of teamwork, which is why Nikki believes she thrives so well with writing partner Megan.
"I like to make movies and TV shows with people because every single person on that crew and cast, they all matter, everybody's important. And those are things I learned on the show. It took a massive amount of people to make that show work."
Nikki said that working with 21 children, learning that there was time for all of them to get a turn to shine in the spotlight, was an important lesson, especially when her friends became household names, and she couldn't pay her bills.
"I was really struggling; it was hard during that time because I was like 'was I forgotten about?' I worked just as hard as everybody else. 'Why am I not being seen?' I think that when I look back at my journey, I'm so grateful because being able to experience so much failure and not getting what I wanted made me the person that I am today."
She believes now that her less flashy path through the industry better prepared her for what was to come. "I just kind of was able to find my way on my own without any spotlight on me. And there is a gift inside of that.
"So I'm able to have perspective now and look at it and say, 'Wow, I'm actually really fortunate that I got to go through what I did, because, you know, it turned me into a person of deep gratitude and a person who, you know, really, truly get to live a pretty normal life.'"
There was a time when Nikki believed that she would have the world on a string one day, but she didn't follow the same path as some of her early peers.
"I'm so fortunate. But you know, I still have to fight to get into rooms and doors, and I have to write my own material. I have to produce my own material. I have to do all of these things. It's hard. I don't want anybody to think that it's easy. It is not; it is so hard.
"And after being in this business 30 something years. Yeah, I very much thought that after that long in the business, that I wouldn't have to fight so hard. But that's just not the way it is."
"I just fight for a different reason now. I'm not fighting for myself. I'm not fighting because my self-worth needs it. I'm fighting because I know that if I continue, and I continue to have a platform that I get to do really cool things with it, like help people."
Nikki's grandmother, her Nana, wanted Nikki to do a Hallmark Christmas movie. She was working on the critically acclaimed awards-darling, Awkward, but Nana wanted to see Nikki in something wholesome and sweet. Nikki obliged.
She recalls going to her beloved hometown during the holidays, where she had always been treated with the utmost kindness and respect, only to discover that appearing in a Hallmark Christmas movie was an entirely different level to her family, friends, and hometown neighbors.
Nikki attended a church service just before Christmas. "My movie was airing that night, and the pastor was like, 'We have to go home because Nikki is going to be on Hallmark! She's doing a Hallmark Christmas movie.' And it felt like the whole town watched my movie. And the feedback that I got from people.
"Here, I've been doing work in this industry for such a long time. But I had never gotten this kind of feedback. They're pouring their hearts out; there's a joy in their eyes.
"And in the language, it's like you don't understand what these movies mean to me, how they make me feel, and I can turn it on, and I don't have to worry about anything, and I can watch it with my family, my kids, and they make me feel like, at least for 90 minutes, the world is going to be okay."
Flying back to LA after the holidays, Nikki realized that she wanted to form a relationship with a network that inspired such joy in people's hearts. She told them, "I don't want just to be an actress, which I will take if that's all that you will offer me, but I want to be on your team.
"Because what I witnessed and what I felt from my community and my people about what you do and the content that you put out, I want to be a part of making people feel that way."
Nikki has felt seen and heard by Hallmark in ways she'd never have imagined. They offer more than a job; they are always there for her with love and support when she needs it most. "They're not just a network. They are a family who cares very deeply about the people who are there and who work there," she said.
"And I think that for me, having been in this industry as long as I had been and been on the other side of people not caring about you, and not caring about your life and knowing that you are just a commodity to them. To actually sit across from somebody else and say, 'No, you're a human being, and we love you. How can we help you?'
"I was like, 'You have me as long as you want me. I am with you.' So that is why I love them so much. And that is why I will continue to produce and write and act for them as long as they'll have me."
At the time of our conversation, Nikki was in talks with Hallmark Movies and Mysteries about an ongoing drama she had developed with them in mind.
"They just have a lot of mystery wheels that are happening, so there really wasn't a need for another mystery wheel, but the show that I helped develop for the network is less of a mystery wheel, and it's more of an ongoing, it's more of a drama. And but it's got a whole lot of heart, and it's very different."
But coming up on Saturday is Taking the Reins, which she and Megan developed for Hallmark and executive produced for the network. Megan, who is also an actor, even wound up with a role in the film when they had trouble casting the part.
"She's an incredible actress; she's been an actress for years. And that's actually how we met, in acting class 13 years ago," she said of her writing partner, who she pushed to submit a tape for the role that was proving so difficult to cast.
"We were like four days out from starting. And she literally -- five minutes, she did one take -- put herself on tape, and I sent it into the network. The network watched it and was like, 'Who is this person? She's incredible. And I was like, 'This is your other executive producer and my writing partner, Megan McNulty.'
"We didn't even tell them because we didn't want them to feel like they had to make any kind of trade. So we wanted them to look at the tapes of everybody and pick the best person.
"And so it was just such a cool thing for the two of us who have met in acting class, to have been on this journey of some years we can't afford produce. And then, all of a sudden, we're on set together for this movie that we created, this movie that we're producing, and cameras are actually rolling.
"To go from acting class to that was so surreal. I just kept looking at her going, 'Megan, Megan, can you believe this is happening? We're in a scene together! With cameras!' Yeah, it was so surreal and so cool."
Nikki thanks God for bringing her and Megan together to work on projects meant to inform, inspire, and entertain.
Of Taking the Reins, Nikki couldn't help but gush about the dream cast. "Oh, gosh, I mean, come on. I literally, this is a dream cast for me. I was a giant fan of Friday Night Lights, and getting Scott Porter was, I was so ecstatic.
"And he was everything and more than I thought he was going to be: such a good actor, a great leading man, a good teammate, and a great partner.
"He is so kind, an incredible husband, an incredible dad, very grounded in his life, just a normal kid who ends up being incredibly talented and very well known."
"The movie itself is beautiful, and we're so proud of it. The character I play, she's been divorced, and she suffered a great humility in her career as a showjumper, and it was on the tail end of divorce. She just decided to just leave and start a whole new life.
"And she kind of had to come home, and she got back into the world that she left and is forced to have to really deal with the stuff that she didn't have to deal with before because she just walked away. It's a movie about learning how to get over your ego and pride, and it is about second chances.
"It is a movie about the fact that love is deeper than any misunderstanding. There's a lot of themes that I think are really pertinent to what we are experiencing right now as a country. All told, this is a beautiful, romantic love story.
"I really hope people enjoy it. The cast is incredible. The director [Clare Neiderpruem], a female director, just knocked it out of the park. Yeah, it was a really, really incredible experience."
If Nikki's projects can bring people as much joy as she receives from her many blessings, we'll be fortunate to have been a part of it.
Make sure to watch Taking the Reins on Hallmark, Saturday, September 25 at 9/8c.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.