We’re full on into spring, which has been wonderful! For this month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beau G. Heyen, the president and CEO of Episcopal Community Services in Kansas City. Many know of Beau and his work at ECS because of the attention that the transformation of the Kansas City Community Kitchen has received, both locally and nationally. In addition to his impressive work in anti-poverty services and hunger relief, Beau has been involved in LGBT organizing and youth ministries. I have been inspired to hear his story and I’m thrilled to be able to share it with everyone.
Okay, I was a little overwhelmed by everything that you have done! You definitely don’t let the grass grow under your feet. You have lived in Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, and New York City, to name a few locations. I keep coming back to New York City. What led you there?
I am often confused and overwhelmed by my journey. Since I was a child, I always felt a drive, or a call, to “do more.” I started volunteering at a young age, but there was always something else that needed to be done. In college, I started as a music education major, but the call to “do more” guided me to become a school counselor. After being forced to resign as a school counselor in St. Joseph for being “too tall” (conveniently a week after I came out to my principal), I wanted to move a “big” city. I started in Dallas, then moved to Houston. In each city, I got engaged with the community through work and volunteering – always wanting to “do more.” In December of 2012, after a breakup and being downsized out of a small nonprofit, I decided that “if I wanted to do this for real” (whatever “this” was), I needed to move to NYC or L.A. I really had no plans, other than to try it. I took two months to save some money – only putting away $1,200 – and moved to NYC. I had no job, no real connections and no plan. I rented a room in Union City, N.J. – near Hoboken. The first two months were tough. I interviewed for dozens of jobs, working part time at Gym Sportsbar in Chelsea. I almost gave up and moved back home. Then I received a call from a recruiter who saw my profile on LinkedIn. She said there was a job at Food Bank for New York City – “something about the community” – that I would be perfect for. She said she was going to call to set up an interview. A day later, she called me back and said that I started on Wednesday – no interview, still not sure what the job was going to be. To be honest, it was truly one of those “God things” – or higher-power things. It was a leap of faith, one that I barely believe I took.
How did you become involved in anti-poverty services and hunger relief?
I started my career as a school counselor in Hickman Mills [School District]. There, I worked closely with children living in poverty. I felt that there was so much more that we could do as a system to help these young people and their families. At first, I thought my call was to help schools create better systems. I consulted with DESE [Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education], helping school counselors evaluate their programs. Through that work, I transferred to the St. Joseph School District. There, in the school I was placed, I couldn’t help but get fired up about poverty. The school was full of teachers and administration who grew up in the neighborhood. As an outsider, I felt they were ignoring those most in need – those living in poverty, people of color, etc. I couldn’t sit by, so I started to stir the pot, which led to some uncomfortable encounters with other teachers and my eventual leaving my position due to being “too tall.” It wasn’t until I moved to Houston and worked with West Houston Assistance Ministries that poverty became my focus. Food insecurity (hunger) became my focus moving to NYC – all thanks to that random phone call from a recruiter about a position I had no details about. Since then, ending hunger has been my ambition.
You moved back to Kansas City in August 2015. Why did you choose to return to the Midwest?
I made the choice to leave NYC in early 2015. I found NYC to be slow – which says a lot about my personality. With so many people and so much happening every moment of the day, systemic change felt impossible. I took an opportunity to focus on building my consulting business. A few months of traveling between four cities was much more exhausting than I anticipated; however, I was not sure where I wanted to end up. Again, a random recruiter reached out to me about the position at Episcopal Community Services (ECS). I wasn’t 100 percent sold on moving back to KC. That was until I came for my first interview, which was held at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, where the Heartland Men’s Chorus rehearses. As I drove away, taking the same route I had for years as a singing member of HMC, I suddenly felt a chill. At that moment, I know I was being called back to KC. At that moment, I saw the role I could play in helping our amazing city move boldly forward to change the face of hunger and poverty. I believe that if any city in this country can end hunger, end homelessness, it’s KC. We have the heart, the passion, the willingness – we just need the right push and opportunities to engage in meaningful ways.
You are the president/CEO of Episcopal Community Services in Kansas City. For those who aren’t aware, could you please explain the services that ECS provides?
Since its founding in 1989, ECS has provided hunger relief programs in Kansas City’s urban core and surrounding communities. Our mission is to engage the broader communities in feeding the hungry and empowering the poor to move beyond the barriers of poverty with dignity; in short, “Feeding the Hungry – Changing Lives.”
Today, our programs include:
Kansas City Community Kitchen: KCCK is located in the Downtown Community Services Center, adjacent to reStart, one of the largest nonprofits in Kansas City serving the homeless. In 2016, KCCK began serving meals restaurant-style in a “dining with dignity” format. A volunteer host greets all guests, and volunteer servers take guest orders and serve them. KCCK offers more than a meal; it offers respect — something that many hungry and homeless people do not often experience. One guest said, “It’s different. They’re treating me good, like they don’t know I’m homeless.” In addition to serving traditional clients, KCCK diners include community members, fostering a better understanding of the reasons people are food-insecure. The introduction of the new service model brought an 8 percent average monthly increase in the number of guests served. Offsite meals, known as Cornerstones Catering, also saw an increase.
Episcopal Hunger Relief Network: EHRN is a network of churches (various denominations) throughout the metropolitan area that offer services such as a food pantry, hot meals, nutrition education, and “BackSnack” programs to more than 25,000 households annually. Network sites have been in operation for several years. Coordination of efforts will increase through 2018, with the intention of bringing administration of these programs under the ECS umbrella.
Culinary Cornerstones Training Program: CCTP has been operating since 2007; however, the newly reinvigorated 30-week, 800-hour program has been in operation for just over one year, providing meaningful vocational training, life skills education. The newly reinvigorated program provides case management services to participants. These services are critical, as people are often unable to obtain/maintain employment due to a variety of personal and social barriers. Last year, our Culinary Advisory Council merged with the education committee of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association and has become a leader in redefining workforce development with an enhanced focus on life skills, both locally and nationally.
Hunger Summits: There are many kinds of people working on hunger around Kansas City and beyond – nonprofits, schools, families, churches, etc. – but we don’t always know what others are doing or work together to work more efficiently and support each other. One of our network BackSnack programs came to us because they wanted to do more and weren’t sure what direction to go. We worked with their church to pull together a group of people that were working on hunger in their area of the metro to see what was already being done and where people felt there were gaps that this church might be able to fill. That initial conversation helped all of us realize that just coming together to talk about what each of us was doing was immensely helpful. We can share resources, make sure we all know what each organization is doing, when we’re open, etc., to give good information to the people that need help. As we talk more and build relationships with each other, we can look at the food system as a whole rather than just our little piece, perhaps seeing some gaps, and work together to change things or make adjustments to better serve the community. We’ve begun hosting hunger summits in different areas of the metro. Please feel free to share this information and attend any or all meetings that interest you. For more detailed information about this project, go to https://goo.gl/gqdaV1 for our full project narrative.
Mobile Market: Coming in September 2017, our newest project will provide a mobile grocery store to increase access to healthy food in Wyandotte County. This project will be the first WIC mobile grocery store in the country – or so we are told. We are planning to explore a grocery hub concept to address food deserts in Kansas City, Mo., in 2018.
One of the ECS services, Kansas City Community Kitchen, has received quite a bit of attention, both locally and nationally. What makes KCCK unique?
Kansas City Community Kitchen made the news in spring 2016 when we made a big change to the way lunch is served. Rather than a traditional soup-kitchen model that serves cafeteria-style meals (people waiting in line for their tray of food), we started serving nutritious, restaurant-style meals.
We had a restaurant chef work on our menus and plating skills, and volunteers began serving as hosts, bussers and waiters, giving diners the opportunity to choose which specific items would go on their plates. We use real silverware, china, offer refills on beverages, bus the tables for them and encourage volunteers to have conversations, getting feedback from our guests on how they like the food and what other menu items they’d like to see in the future. We call it “Dining with Dignity” and it made news – you may have seen us in the Kansas City Star, on Upworthy, in an online video that went viral on social media, and most recently on NBC Nightly News.
We are also guided by Seven Core Values (honesty, integrity, commitment to excellence, trust and respect, teamwork, continuous improvement and being a faith-based organization), which we believe also sets us apart.
What has been the response to KCCK?
Amazing! We survey our guests often. During a recent poll, over 70 percent said that our food is better than other places in the area. We have also seen a huge increase in people coming for a meal. Over 2016, since the launch of the new model, we saw an average 8 percent increase in guests coming to eat each month. Comparing January 2016 (before launch) to January 2017, we saw an 80 percent increase in number of guests served – 40 percent increase from February 2016 (when we launched the new service model) to February 2017. Last Thursday, we served a record 532 meals over lunch and breakfast (we added breakfast last month as a pilot). We anticipate providing over 12,000 meals this month alone! We are now being asked to open more kitchens across Kansas City and have been consulting with dozens of organizations around the world each month. We now host webinars, that are also shared on our website, to help others join us in providing food with dignity. Our hope is to transform the entire emergency food system.
As president/CEO of ECS, what have you found to be the biggest challenge?
Change is hard. I think many people were not ready to step out from behind the safe walls of the kitchen to serve our guests. We have come a long way, but we are often in need of volunteers. Funding is also very difficult. Out of our nearly $2.5 MILLION budget, only $5,000 comes from the government. Luckily, nearly $1.5 million is in-kind (food rescue, rent, volunteer support), but we still have roughly a million dollars to raise each year. Right now, I am the only one raising funds – as well as managing the organization, leading community meetings and working on advocacy. Our hope is to hire a development person this summer – if I can find the funds. We are also pushing individuals to become monthly givers and have several upcoming events to engage the community, including a brunch with bottomless mimosas on June 11.
You are incredibly involved in your work. How do you keep a balance between your work and home life?
If you ask my husband, family and friends, I’m not the best at this. I LOVE what I do, which makes balance incredibly difficult. I am a workaholic. My passion and my “do more” mentality get me in trouble. Over the last few months, I have been participating in the Healthy Communities Leadership Academy, a program of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City – learning how to be a more effective leader – giving the work away, building real coalitions/partnerships, etc. My staff and coach have already seen a shift in my behaviors, including stepping away from work to focus on myself and my family. In January, my husband and I adopted an adorable puppy, Nash. My little family has become a major motivator for change and balance. I have a LONG way to go, but I am hopeful it will get better.
Throughout your life, you have been involved with different men’s choruses. Are you currently involved with any local men’s choruses?
I’m not – sadly. I wanted to get back to singing with HMC; however, my schedule has been nuts. I am still in contact with my chorus friends across the country. At some point, I would love to get back to singing or serve on HMC’s board to help with communications, development and strategic planning.
I like to end with a little fun. What would be your perfect day off? Please explain.
This is a great question, and one that is difficult to answer. I guess it would be spending a slightly cool day (think early spring or late fall) out in our backyard around the fire pit with my husband and our dearest friends – which would mean we have to fly in some people from Nashville, Houston, Dallas and NYC. Simply watching our puppy run around the backyard chasing squirrels, enjoying a mimosa or glass of wine, and great conversation – and maybe a round or two of Cards Against Humanity.