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’s possible when you lead with your heart.
Kirk is currently 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 had a chance to interview 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?
I think Brother Rice was the right place for me because it nurtures this idea to give back, and it was complimentary from the world I came from. I was the only child from a Jamaican home, and for my mother, Brother Rice was a huge investment into satisfying the promise to herself that she was going to make sure that her child had a better opportunity at fulfilling the American dream.
How did you hear about Brother Rice?
My mother worked for a local family, whereby she learned about Brother Rice. As a result, she was determined to send me to Brother Rice. However, she never told me it was an all-boys school. After scrolling through the Honor Roll list, I realized I didn’t see any girls’ names. A debate ensued with my mother on why I should not go to Brother Rice, but, ultimately, my mother won.
How did you adjust to life at Brother Rice?
I remember in my first year, I got into a fight with a sophomore in Coach Fracassa’s gym class. There was no definitive winner or loser in the fight, but there was another African-American student in that class, Marcus Harris, and he helped me hold my ground, so there was a natural friendship that came out of the incident. The next day, the sophomore comes in and pushes me into the lockers because he thinks I’m the one that’s telling everyone that I beat him up. The Dean walks in and takes us both into his office for fighting at school. The number one thing I remember saying to him is please don’t call my mom. I was in the Principal’s office now, and my Mom arrived and heard what they had to say and the entire time, she didn’t say a word, and then we left.
We lived near Six Mile and Schaefer and at the time, there was a social service office located in the shopping center. She drove from Brother Rice directly to that office and pulled into the parking lot to meet with a social worker. The social worker asks, “So why are you here today?” My mother says to this lady, “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 fight 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 the lady, and she’s says, “What’s going on?” I told her, “I go to Brother Rice. I got into a fight” and told her everything that happened. So she says to me, “What do you want to do?” I told her I just wanted to go home, it was only a few blocks away, so she told me to go home. Long story short, for the rest of my time at Brother Rice. I never got into a single fight after that experience.
That first year, I didn’t have a lot of friendships, the only thing I really had was a dream of playing basketball, which I did in the first two years, until I switched to running track. 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. Coach Stark told me the only way it would happen is if we made Regionals and focused on the distance events, so he said “If that’s your dream, you need to go recruit the team.”
So I went and recruited every athlete I could find in the school. Not only did we go to Regionals, we came in second. We took a team to the state finals and we came in 7th place. I recruited the current record-holder in the 100 and 200 yard dashes, Kevin Davis.
Did Brother Rice make you a better person?
I can tell you that by the time I graduated from Brother Rice, I had turned. I had friends graduating from other places and I’d ask them how they did on their ACT’s, they’d tell me, and I’d say you wouldn’t even say that out loud at Brother Rice. At Brother Rice, you never heard “are you going to college?” It was “where are you going to college?” When you start to appreciate the expectations you are operating on because of the environment you’re in, you submit and become integrated with this rule system that’s present and you realize what it has done for you.
I thought about this recently. I had Mr. O’Brien for American Government. He had a big test coming up and I remember just being stressed out by the guy. I remember we had a conversation about the tie and I told him I guaranteed I wouldn’t be putting on a tie once I graduate. His response was, “I bet you’re wrong.” A week later, he gave us an extremely tough mid-term. After the exam, he informed the class that only two people aced the test, Joey Czarnecki (which everyone expected) and Kirk Mayes. I remember later that day seeing Mr. O’Brien in the hall, and as he passed me, he said “Good job on that test, I’m really, really proud of you. And I’m positive you’ll be wearing a tie one day.” And he was right. If I didn’t go to Brother Rice, I don’t know where I would have learned these things, where these things would have manifested, I’m just so appreciative of the experience.
Do your parents believe that sending you to Brother Rice was the right decision?
Absolutely. You know, transitioning to college wasn’t good for me. I didn’t apply myself academically like I should, the looser environment didn’t help me. Brother Rice was something I needed because that discipline was good for me. At Michigan State University, I needed that discipline more than I thought. I wasn’t ready for the independence and responsibilities of being on your own at college. And I’m talking fundamental stuff, like waking up for class, so the freedom I enjoyed became hard and I had some major reality checks to get myself together in order to survive.
What was your biggest highlight in your four years at Brother Rice?
Well, I’m sure any real Warrior would say the day I graduated, but we both know 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.
Why did you choose Brother Rice?
I didn’t choose Brother Rice, my mother chose Brother Rice. If I ever had the chance to choose, I’d undoubtedly choose Brother Rice because it’s one of the finest academic institutions in our country. Period.
What is your favorite Brother Rice memory?
My favorite memory was the time I had with Mr. Stark and Mr. King, I think they conspired to look out for me. I loved training for track in D-Wing. Each day, I would go to the shed and pull out all of the hurdles and place them in D-Wing. As kids were leaving the school wondering what the heck I was doing, Mr. Stark would spend extra days supervising me so I could become the best hurdler I could possibly be. At the end of the day, I was pretty much a mediocre track athlete, I’m not anybody that should be remembered, but that’s my favorite memory. Forgive me for not bringing him up more, but Mr. Popson was the third guy that looked after me. If you ever stepped out of line, it wasn’t Stark or King who’d scold you, it was Popson. “Mayes, get your….over here.” He’d never finish the word, but he’d have that big bright smile and his teeth would take over his whole face and his glasses would move up on his face. 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?
I first started out in sales. I had some internships selling life insurance and I sold Cutco knives, but between my communication skills and speaking abilities, I always knew I could fall back on sales. I then got into substitute teaching at River Rouge schools, and while I was there, I was impressed by the impact a teacher had on his or her kids. 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 just 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 and start making some money together.
That’s what started me on this path to serving people. I knew that if I can serve the greatest amount of people, then I would also be able to serve the people that I intended to serve in the first place, the people that look like me, grew up around me, but didn’t have the same advantages I had at Brother Rice. Having a guy like McDunn to teach me what it means, how to think, how to read a newspaper in a way that you’re not just reading it, how to look at a news story and read in between the lines. I knew there were a lot of people I couldn’t give that to, and 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 got to Brightmoor and ran the Brightmoor Alliance and pulled together groups over there. After a couple years doing that, I was asked to serve as the Deputy for Economic Development team for Mayor Duggan for the first six months of his administration and then a Headhunter called me to Forgotten Harvest and I’ve been here for five years fighting food insecurity.
In what other ways was that passion to serve others ignited within you?
Probably from 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. Everything is in hospitality and hotel.
My mother was sending a shipping container of items to Jamiaca at least once a year. She approached it as her responsibility. There are dozens of children that can’t have a Christmas, so we are 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 imbedded 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 do I need to do and what is true for me, I just kind of fell into this naturally. I don’t think this is my whole DNA, I think I could have been a successful entrepreneur, but this is what makes my heart sing.
Forgotten Harvest lines up in sync with the 3rd essential element of a Christian Brother education, which is to stand in solidarity with those marginalized by poverty and injustice. How would you encourage the Brother Rice community to support Forgotten Harvest and make a difference for the individuals and families served by Forgotten Harvest?
Our story is very much in alignment with the values that Edmund Ignatius Rice stood for and lived by and this is a place that has a strong faith-based drive to it. There is a massive amount of work that is needed to help thousands of people. No matter how many people sign up and volunteer every day, we will always need a helping hand to move this mountain of food.
Through the nature of our business model and the infrastructure we’ve 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, that would definitely help, but we are always open to innovating and pressing on our ability to make more of a difference in people’s lives. So if there’s anybody in our community that has any kind of logistics expertise or anything that you think may be relevant to help us think about the way that we are serving our community in a different way, we are open to it. There’s no idea that’s too big or too off-base. We’d like to hear any idea and if anybody is willing to come in and help us think it through, maybe even roll-up your sleeves, there’s 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’s 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’re serving the greatest amount of choices. That’s my number one directive. I want to improve our nutritious mix everywhere we serve so that any place that is getting served by Forgotten Harvest, people can have confidence that when they go there, they are going to be able to have enough variety and enough volume that their hunger problems will be solved and they can go home that night.
If you had one piece of advice to give to a Brother Rice student, what would that be?
There’s no bigger responsibility that you have for yourself, your family and this world then to figure out who you are. Find out what you really care about and what you’re 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.