In the footsteps of Blessed Edmund, Warrior alumnus and Forgotten Harvest CEO, Kirk Mayes ’94, is addressing food insecurity in metro Detroit in a meaningful way. His contributions are an impressive example of what is possible when you lead with your heart.
Kirk Mayes is the Chief Executive Officer at Forgotten Harvest, a role he has held since August of 2015. He attended and graduated from Michigan State University following his graduation from Brother Rice High School. He has a son who is 18, Kirk Mayes, Jr., and his wife Tamika is a Senior Attorney with the U.S. Tax Counsel at General Motors Company. Alumni Director Dan McGrath ‘96 recently sat down for a conversation with Kirk about his time at Brother Rice and his path to becoming CEO of Forgotten Harvest.
How did Brother Rice prepare you for where you are today?
Brother Rice was the right place for me because it also nurtures the idea to give back, which was complimentary to the world I came from. I was the only child from a Jamaican home. For my mother, Brother Rice was a huge investment in satisfying the promise to herself to ensure that her child had a better opportunity at fulfilling the American dream.
How did you adjust to life at Brother Rice?
Early in my first year, an incident occurred and I ended up in the dean’s office. I remember asking him to please not call my mom, but, of course, he did. When we were in the Principal’s office, my mom listened to what they had to say, but she did not say a word the entire time.
She drove from Brother Rice directly to the social service office to meet with a social worker. When asked why we were there, my mother says, “I gave up all my dreams so I can send this kid to a private school so he can get the American dream, and he wants to go in there and mess it up because a white boy called him a punk. I’m done. If he doesn’t want or appreciate the love and sacrifice that I’ve given him up to this point, you can have him.” My mother proceeded to get out of her chair and walk right out.
Now I’m sitting in the seat looking at this lady, and she said, “What is going on?” After I told her everything that happened, she asked me, “What do you want to do?” I told her I just wanted to go home, and since it was only a few blocks away, she told me to go ahead.
I played basketball for the first two years until I switched to running track. During my senior year, I was named Captain of the Track team. Coach Stark was my math teacher, and I told him my dream was to run against my cousins and best friends at Cass Tech. He told me the only way that would happen is if we made Regionals and focused on the distance events, so he told me to recruit a team. I recruited every athlete I could, including the current record-holder in the 100 and 200-yard dashes, Kevin Davis. We placed second at Reionals, and 7th at State Finals.
Did Brother Rice make you a better person?
I thought about this recently. I had Mr. O’Brien for American Government. We had a big test coming up, and I remember just being stressed out. We had a conversation about wearing ties, and I told him I guaranteed I would not be putting on a tie once I graduated. His response was, “I bet you’re wrong.” After an extremely tough mid-term exam, he informed the class that only two people had aced the test, Joey Czarnecki (which everyone expected) and Kirk Mayes. I saw Mr. O’Brien in the hall later, and he said, “Good job on that test, I’m really, really proud of you. And I am positive you will be wearing a tie one day.” He was right.
When you start to appreciate the expectations of the environment you are in, you become integrated, and you realize all it has done for you. I am just so appreciative of the experience I had.
What was your biggest highlight in your four years at Brother Rice?
It’s no secret that every one of us would come back any time, and come back with love. In all honesty, I’d say it was the experience of being taught by Mr. McDunn, the whole deal – his questions, his challenges, his tests, and always being on point, especially when you think he’s not. Having a guy like him to teach me how to think or how to read a newspaper in a way that you’re not just reading it, but looking at a news story and reading between the lines made an impact.
What is your favorite Brother Rice memory?
My favorite memory was the time I spent with Mr. Stark and Mr. King; I think they conspired to look out for me. I loved training for track in D-Wing. Mr. Stark would spend extra time training me so I could become the best hurdler I could be. Mr. Popson was the third guy that looked after me. If you ever stepped out of line, it wasn’t Stark or King who would scold you; it was Popson. “Mayes, get your….over here.” He would never finish the word, but he would have that big bright smile, and his teeth would take over his whole face, and his glasses would move up. I miss Mr. Popson.
Brother Rice made an impact on who I am by…
Making me a thinking man.
What did you do following graduation from school before working at Forgotten Harvest?
With my communication skills and speaking abilities, I always knew I could fall back on sales, which is where I started. I did some substitute teaching at River Rouge schools, and while I was there, I was impressed by the impact a teacher had on the students. I never really aspired to be a teacher. I remember being the only man on staff and only African-American male in the school, which was largely mixed, but there were a lot of African-American kids, and they had no context of this picture in front of the classroom. I remember it impacted me so much that I started thinking about how I presented myself as a part of the community. I started investigating and going to my mentors to see how I could give back, and one of the ideas that transpired was getting involved in even more community service.
I started an organization called Village Gardeners, not to plant seeds of food, but plant seeds of change. The idea was to create a village-like environment in an urban setting to plant seeds of hope and change that we can start living together in a different way around educational, social, and economic priorities. We learn together, live together, and then start using our money to build an economic future together.
That is what started me on this path to serving people. I knew that if I could help the greatest amount of people, then I would also be able to serve the people that I intended to help in the first place. People that look like me, grew up around me, but didn’t have the same advantages I had at Brother Rice. I didn’t have much to give out of my pocket, but I had this awareness of how we can approach it, and I wanted to lead. I just wanted to lead again.
Eventually, I ran the Brightmoor Alliance and pulled together groups over there. I also served as the Deputy for Economic Development team for Mayor Duggan. Five years ago, a headhunter called about Forgotten Harvest, and I’ve been here fighting food insecurity ever since.
In what other ways was that passion to serve others ignited within you?
It was my upbringing. I’ve always watched my mother looking out for other people. Being Jamaican, obtaining a green card was not easy. There’s not a workforce environment you can grow into or a career path to follow because you have limited access to those type of jobs. She would still send a shipping container of items to Jamaica at least once a year. She approached it as her responsibility. There are dozens of children that can’t have a Christmas, so we were their Christmas. Being poor is way harder when there’s not one gift to open on Christmas. She does it for her family and has always done it as a burden of love. So I’ve witnessed this selfless approach to life.
I also grew up in a Pentecostal church where my mother’s surrogate family made sure I was on the right path as well. I was entrenched in an environment of people who just instilled in me a DNA of service, the greatest amongst you is a servant. So for me, it’s ethically improper to turn your head on somebody in need. When it was time for me to really sit back and reflect on who I am, what I need to do, and what is true for me, I just kind of fell into this path naturally. I could have been a successful entrepreneur, but this is what makes my heart sing.
Forgotten Harvest lines up with the 3rd Essential Element of a Christian Brother Education, which is to stand in solidarity with those marginalized by poverty and injustice. You make an incredible impact every day for those you serve at Forgotten Harvest. How would you encourage others to get involved?
Our story is very much in alignment with the values that Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice stood for and lived by, and Forgotten Harvest also has a strong faith-based drive to it. There is a massive amount of work needed in order to help thousands of people. No matter how many people sign up and volunteer every day, we always need a helping hand to move this mountain of food.
Through the nature of our business model and the infrastructure we have built over the years, we are able to get seven times the amount of food in cash value you can get from the grocery store. From an immediate standpoint, monetary donations always help, but we are open to innovating and pressing on our ability to make more of a difference in people’s lives. If there is anyone in our community with logistics expertise or anything that may be relevant to help us think about the way we might serve our community in a different way, we are open to it. There is no idea that is too big or too off-base. We welcome any idea, and if anyone is willing to come in and help us think it through, maybe even roll-up your sleeves, there is a big huge open space for you to help.
What’s the main goal you’d like to accomplish as CEO of Forgotten Harvest?
The biggest thing I want to do while I’m here is to make sure there is an equitable redistribution of everything we get on a daily basis to all of our partners that we serve every day. That would effectively give our partners and the people that we are serving the greatest amount of choices. That is my number one directive. I want to improve our nutritious mix everywhere we serve so that people can have confidence that they are going to be able to have enough variety and enough volume that their hunger problems will be solved.
If you had one piece of advice to give to a Brother Rice student, what would that be?
There’s no bigger responsibility you have for yourself, your family, and this world than to figure out who you are. Find out what you really care about and what you are passionate about, the thing that you can do all day, and nobody makes you do it. Become the best at it and give that back to the world, and everything will work itself out.
The primary mission of Forgotten Harvest is to relieve hunger and prevent nutritious food waste. They deliver 138,000 pounds of surplus food per day to local charities six days a week, providing families in need with fresh and nutritious food free of charge. To learn more about Forgotten Harvest or become part of the solution by volunteering or making a donation, visit forgottenharvest.org.