When Kirk Mayes’ mom goes to Jamaica each year, she takes cardboard barrels full of everything from baby clothes and shoes to canned goods and rice for family and people who are like family.
She packs those barrels to the point of having to sit on them to close them. When his mom goes shopping, she catalogs what the kids in Jamaica need.
“It didn’t matter if this woman was bringing home $50 a day or if she was bringing home $3,000 a week, every year of my life my mother was taking home a barrel or two or three for our family and that was Christmas, that’s Thanksgiving for everybody,” he said.
At the root: Take care of your community and empower them.
And community isn’t just family either. It goes beyond blood.
Community building is what motivates Mayes. It’s the common thread in his journey from being a teacher, to starting a nonprofit supporting block clubs, to running a coalition of community organizations in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, to now being the CEO of Forgotten Harvest, and the stops in between.
Mayes — who steers the metro Detroit food rescue nonprofit delivering millions of pounds of food each year to local organizations — is the recipient of this year’s Eleanor Josaitis Unsung Leader Award. The recognition is part of the Shining Light Awards, presented by the Detroit Free Press and the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, honoring individuals making contributions to regional cooperation, progress and understanding in southeast Michigan.
“He’s a person that I would call genuinely a man of the people. He wants to champion and put tables together for people,” to empower themselves, said Nathaniel Wallace, director of the Knight Foundation, who nominated Mayes for the leadership award.
Wallace, who has known Mayes for about 15 years, said he is a “visionary” and “disruptor.”
“He wants Black people to empower themselves,” Wallace said. “And I think everything comes from that place … how can I help Black people empower themselves in the city of Detroit?
Mayes, 46, is a born and raised Detroiter. His parents immigrated from Jamaica to America in the 1960s and 1970s. He grew up in a home with discipline but where his imagination was unchained.
His parents, he said, are “salt of the earth” people who give what they have and don’t forget where they came from. His mother wanted to ensure that he became a professional and find success, to get a better start than she had.
“While my parents grew up in rural environments, they’ve always had first world dreams and they’ve, I think, reconciled a long time ago to this idea that they’re going to have to live their dreams through their kids,” he said.
Mayes went to Brother Rice High School and graduated with a communications degree from Michigan State University in 1999.
He taught for a few years as a substitute in the River Rouge School District and as a sixth grade teacher at the Academy of Oak Park. What stood out to him during that time was that there weren’t enough Black men in the profession.
Education is a collective effort, Mayes said, and it can happen outside the classroom.
“It takes everyone in our community, at least in low-income, urban communities that have to deal with poverty and the challenges that come with that. Everybody actually has to be involved at some point to ensure that our kids are getting everything they can from education,” he said.
Over time, Mayes wanted to have a bigger impact in the community outside of the classroom. He knew he had to make a decision. Should he continue teaching or take another path?
“I wanted to do something that would have been able to affect people out in the community,” he said.
Mayes began to teach himself about the nonprofit world with the help of a mentor.
In 2001, he created Village Gardeners, an educational, social and economic development organization, which included boosting neighborhood block clubs — the safety net for local communities. The idea was to “bootstrap” together, as Mayes put it.
After selling life insurance and leading a summer camp, Mayes ran an education program at the nonprofit Communities in Schools. Then he went on to the Brightmoor Alliance, first as a liaison and eventually as executive director. After that, he worked for the city of Detroit for a few months before joining Forgotten Harvest as CEO in 2014.
“Lots of people can lead organizations, can step in as CEOs and call themselves leaders but Kirk is truly a leader. He is a very talented community organizer. He has a way of reaching out to different groups, different individuals, bringing them under the umbrella,” said Nancy Fishman, the founder of Forgotten Harvest.
Fishman said Mayes looked at the big picture when he came in, pushing for more nutritious meals.
“He was looking at the problem more globally, more systemically,” she said, thinking about what happens when people living below the poverty line don’t have access to healthy food and how that affects the health care system, and the role food providers play.
He looks at the gears of the organization from the people being served to the community partners and “like a fine conductor orchestrates these parts into something extremely meaningful and very comprehensive,” Fishman said.
In May, Forgotten Harvest moved to a larger 78,000-square-foot facility on Eight Mile Road in Oak Park, with the goal of providing more healthy food to families and seniors and ramping up operations.
The previous 30,000-square-foot facility accommodated 35 million pounds of food annually but the need, the organization found, was closer to 70 million a year. The new food rescue and distribution center has capacity for 90 million pounds of food.
Forgotten Harvest plans to pilot a community nutrition center, slated to begin construction in 2023, to store goods, where people can “shop” for items they want and even get help from social service partners, Mayes said.
The organization serves 750,000 people annually but during the COVID-19 pandemic that went up to over 1 million in 2020, Mayes said. Rising food and gas prices have been disruptive to families as well, he said.
“It’s super important for us as a country, as a family, as a group of people who are all in this thing together to not let people suffer more than they should, more than they need to,” Mayes said.
Gerry Brisson, president and CEO of Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, described Mayes as persistent and who cares deeply about the people he serves.
Brisson, the 2019 recipient of the Eleanor Josaitis Unsung Hero Award, said being partners rather than competitors is the foundation of their relationship.
“Kirk has spent a lot of time working in community and understanding what communities need and how to talk to people and how to listen to people,” he said.
Mayes will be honored at a breakfast ceremony on Oct. 6 at The Mint in Lathrup Village. More information and tickets for the event are available at shininglightawards.com.