Forgotten Harvest CEO says Catholic education prepared him to serve during pandemic

Kirk Mayes, chief executive officer of Oak Park-based Forgotten Harvest and a 1994 graduate of Brother Rice High School, credits his alma mater and his parents’ steadfast work ethic with providing him the tools to succeed in life — which for Mayes means helping as many Metro Detroiters alleviate hunger as possible. (Photos courtesy of Forgotten Harvest)

Brother Rice grad Kirk Mayes (’94) reflects on upbringing, COVID-19 food needs and his unwavering commitment to help Detroiters

OAK PARK — When Kirk Mayes graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in communications in 1999, he could have gone anywhere.

Director of public relations for a Fortune 500 company? Not out of the question. Successful entrepreneur? Sure, if that’s what he put his mind to.

That was the kind of work ethic Mayes’ parents — Jamaican immigrants to Detroit in the 1980s — instilled in their son.

“That’s what my mom always wanted for me as far as pursuing the American dream,” said Mayes, a 1994 graduate of Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills. “She always saw that education was the way to make that happen.”

Growing up in the 1950s on the Caribbean island, Mayes’ mother and father didn’t even own shoes until their first day of school, he said. So it was only natural that Mayes’ parents — who didn’t meet each other until they both immigrated to Detroit — would want the best for their son.

“In the ’50s in Jamaica, not having light wasn’t abnormal,” Mayes said. “When the sun goes down, the day is over. My mom used to have to carry 5-6 gallons of water on her head seven miles up and downhill into town to make sure that my grandparents had water.”

The fact that the Detroit-born and -raised Mayes would grow up to become CEO of Forgotten Harvest, one of southeast Michigan’s largest distributors of emergency food aid, during a global pandemic speaks to the other lesson his parents and his Catholic school upbringing instilled: character.

A volunteer works Forgotten Harvest’s drive-up food service at its Oak Park facility last year. The pandemic has created challenges for the nonprofit, one of Metro Detroit's largest emergency food suppliers, including a shortage of volunteers. 

“I live in the city, and I love my city deeply,” Mayes told Detroit Catholic during an interview about the nonprofit’s work over the past year. “I feel like the work that I have done to serve and give back to the people in the community has been a complete honor. I have been the one who has been lucky.”

Since COVID-19 broke out, Forgotten Harvest has been at the forefront of Metro Detroit’s emergency response. In the past year alone, the agency collected and distributed more than 46 million pounds of food — logging more than 54,000 volunteer hours — a critical lifeline for more than 1 million people struggling with hunger and economic uncertainty.

Molded to serve

Since assuming leadership of the Oak Park-based nonprofit in 2014, Mayes has made it his mission to give back to the community that’s given him so much.

The emotion in his voice as he describes his love of Detroit is matched only by his passion for service — itself a relic of his parents’ humble upbringing in Jamaica.

“When I go back and actually visit my family and the visit the place where they grew up, I realize the path they took to be able to get to this country, to have the opportunity to give me a chance to go further than what they would have ever been able to do,” Mayes said.

“They taught me about being good to other people, knowing that life is circular sometimes,” he said. “You never know who you’re going to pass along the way.”

Kirk Mayes (’94) is pictured with Brother Rice High School alumni director Dan McGrath (’96) during a visit to the school to promote the work of Forgotten Harvest. Brother Rice students often volunteer at the nonprofit during non-COVID times, which provides students a service learning experience like what Mayes received as a student. (Courtesy of Brother Rice High School)

Mayes grew up Pentecostal, but his mother worked hard to provide him with a religious-based education. He attended St. Timothy Lutheran School in Detroit, and later Brother Rice.

“I pretty much grew up in the church. My mom believed in putting God first and going to prayer meetings, Bible study, being a leader in the church and being in the choir. So I was a church kid growing up my whole life,” Mayes said.

At first, he resisted the idea of attending an all-boys high school in the suburbs — his friends were all in Detroit — but in hindsight, he wouldn’t trade his experience at Brother Rice for anything.

“It was a culture shock, but once I got there and had the chance to be immersed in the education, the people, the way of doing things, it was one of the best things to ever happen in my life,” Mayes said.

At the time, he was one of 12 African-American boys at Brother Rice, and one of a small handful who grew up in Detroit. He still keeps in contact with those who helped form him, including his old math teacher and track coach, Robert Stark.

“I think Brother Rice is the type of place where … it’s kind of like the pressure on the piece of coal,” Mayes said. “If you are ready to turn into a diamond, this is the place that’s gonna do it for you.”

Volunteers in full COVID-19 personal protective equipment distribute food at the Warren City Hall. Because of the pandemic, Forgotten Harvest’s volunteer base has shrunk — both as a result of fewer corporate groups signing up and the need for social distancing. 

It wasn’t just the challenging curriculum that helped Mayes; it was also the emphasis on service, which eventually led to his future role at Forgotten Harvest. 

“My parents always taught me that faith in myself was a first priority, because even though the world is going to show me a lot of different points of view and I am not going to enter every circle with an equal footing, I need to know that nobody is better than me and I am not better than anybody,” Mayes said.

Meeting a need, fulfilling a duty

Managing a nonprofit as complex as Forgotten Harvest is a challenge in any year — but especially so during a pandemic.

On an average day, Forgotten Harvest distributes 138,000 pounds of surplus food — excess donated by grocery stories, restaurants and caterers that would otherwise go to waste — to more than 250 nonprofits and charities across Metro Detroit. The agency’s mission, Mayes says, is to reduce two problems simultaneously: hunger and waste.

But while hunger has increased, it’s taken some creativity to find the food resources to match it.

“The need is increased,” Mayes said. “People who were already vulnerable have fewer options because the job market is tied up. So the lines have tended to be longer, and there is more of a concern now with some of the folks who don’t have as much mobility.”

When COVID-19 hit, Forgotten Harvest was forced to reconsider its supply chain, relying not only on the generosity of donors, but also on supplies obtained through the federal government’s “Farmers to Families Food Boxes,” a provision of the 2020 CARES Act.

A volunteer loads boxes of food into a vehicle last year. While the need for emergency food has increased for Metro Detroit’s families, nonprofits like Forgotten Harvest have relied upon alternative sources such as the federal government's “Farmers to Families Food Boxes,” a provision of the 2020 CARES Act. 

A bigger challenge, however, was finding the volunteers to package, sort and deliver food to agencies in need. With the pandemic limiting large gatherings, Forgotten Harvest found corporate groups were not signing up to volunteer as they normally would, and the volunteers who were signing up had to be spaced appropriately. Many volunteers are senior citizens, Mayes added, who are at higher risk of COVID-19.

In a typical year, the nonprofit hosts between 15,000 and 16,000 volunteers. Last year, that number was about 12,000, Mayes said.

“We had to secure an additional facility in order to give us the room to accommodate those new parameters, but also to take on some of the supplies we need in order to be able to address the community needs at the pace that is required during this time,” Mayes said.

Forgotten Harvest had already been working on a five-year development plan that included a new facility, distribution strategy and food mix — plans the pandemic accelerated.

“Back in November of 2020, we broke ground on our future facility (at 15000 8 Mile Road, Oak Park), and we hope that as we emerge from COVID, we will be moving into our new facility and continue on with the high quality of service delivery,” Mayes said.

As food pantries and soup kitchens shut down early on during the pandemic, Forgotten Harvest pivoted to a “rolling distribution,” Mayes said — dropping boxes of food directly into people’s cars.  

Through it all, Mayes said his commitment has been to keep Forgotten Harvest’s mission going no matter what.

“We haven’t had to shut down operations due to the pandemic,” Mayes said. “We’ve only shut down to give the team a rest day.”

Forever grateful to God 

Nineteen years ago, when Mayes became a father himself, he decided he wanted to set the same example for his son as his parents set for him.

He doesn’t see his work at Forgotten Harvest as a handout to the community. Rather, he sees it as a lifeline to those who — like his parents — have scraped and clawed for what they have.

“People for the most part have a streak of independence and autonomy,” Mayes said. “They want to do it for themselves. Even when somebody needs help, they will try to do as much as they can to take care of themselves until they just can’t do it anymore. That’s where people tend to ask for help.”

For Kirk Mayes, helping Detroiters through difficult times is part of being a responsible citizen, but it's also a passion he credits to his parents, who set positive examples of hard work, selflessness and compassion. 

Mayes’ parents continue to set a steadfast example, he says. His father has worked at Ford Motor Company for 57 years, and doesn’t plan to retire.

“You’re talking about people who have deep commitments. My parents’ home number has been the same for 30 years,” Mayes said. “And as a result, my son is 19 going on 20, and I have kept the same cellphone number since he was 3.”

“They’re real, true salt-of-the-earth people,” he added. “We can get by with nothing, and we can stay humble with all the blessings — I got that from my parents.”

Mayes is quick to credit Brother Rice for instilling those early Christian values, too — values he hopes to pass on to his own son, who graduated recently from University of Detroit Jesuit High School.  

“What did I get from my Catholic education? It was a great space for me to grow into a man,” Mayes said. “I decided when it was time for me to pick a place for my son to go to school, I did send him to (a Catholic school). It’s about the education, but that’s not everything.

“I wouldn’t attribute my intelligence to where I am today: it’s more about my character, my decisions, that makes me who I am,” he added. “That was nurtured and galvanized and cemented into me at Brother Rice, and I will forever be grateful for that.”

Interview conducted by Gabriella Patti; story written by Michael Stechschulte