heeding the call.
Forgotten Harvest CEO, Kirk Mayes, was born on Detroit’s west side and raised by a mother who was determined to help him succeed.
“My mother's an immigrant from Jamaica.” Says Mayes. “She dreamed of being a nurse, but never really got a chance to leave the daily hustle of makings ends meet for us. Beyond being a provider though, she raised me on values rooted in discipline, hard work, education, spirituality, and having good character when nobody was watching. But above all, there was a lot of love. There still is. I'm very lucky.”
She also knew that a great education was essential to helping him thrive, so she worked tirelessly to keep him in schools that would provide that solid academic foundation.
“She sent me to private school to fulfill her dream of providing me with an education that would keep me away from the poverty she had experienced before coming to the U.S…. She was the matriarch of our family. Even after she left Jamaica, she supported our family there. She would shop sales throughout the year so she could give them gifts when we visited. But in spite of everything she did for our family, I didn't really realize the sacrifices she was making until after graduating from Michigan State University.”
It was around that time that Mayes learned that he had a son of his own on the way, so the reality of his mother’s sacrifices came full circle and made him think deeply about his next steps.
“I took some time to reflect on all my mother had done for me, and it made me think about the example I wanted to set for my son. I knew I had a decision to make: Did I want to make the same sacrifice and commitment she made — which was letting go of her dream in order to provide for me — or did I want to find a way to be a provider while still pursuing my dreams?”
He resolved to do the latter but was still unsure of precisely what those dreams were.
“So, I asked myself, ‘If I accomplished all my goals and didn’t have to worry about money, what would I do to fill my soul?’ I started thinking about the volunteer experiences I had growing up and how they made me feel, and I realized that I wanted to help people in Detroit tap into their gifts and achieve their dreams.”
That moment of clarity led him to start his very first non-profit, Village Gardeners, but he struggled to balance being a new parent and first-time entrepreneur at once. He felt he was falling short of his family’s expectations — particularly his mother, who saw his path leading to the very circumstances she worked so hard to help him avoid. Still, even in the face of adversity, he couldn’t ignore the call to serve that was ringing in his heart. So he stayed the course, and soon the doors started to open.
In 2006, Mayes received an opportunity to work with Communities in Schools. The steady pay helped him achieve the financial security he needed, and he was doing work he loved — and doing it well. In fact, just two years later he accepted a Community Liaison position with the Skillman Foundation, where he stayed until 2010, when he was named Executive Director of the Brightmoor Alliance: A coalition of nearly 50 organizations dedicated to reducing poor housing, crime and vacant land in northwest Detroit’s Brightmoor community.
“Brightmoor residents felt like their neighborhood was insignificant because, at the time, the local government was falling short of providing even basic services like picking up trash and improving the physical environment. All the people wanted was for Brightmoor to be a place where their kids could grow up with the same opportunities as any other children in the city… I really committed myself to the stories and dreams of that community, which allowed me to be the humble servant who helped make some of them a reality.”
His leadership in Brightmoor earned him a position as the deputy of the economic development team for newly elected Mayor, Mike Duggan. His time there would prove to be short-lived though because just months after accepting the position, he was asked to be CEO of Forgotten Harvest — the position he still holds today.
“I'm celebrating four years here this month, and I'm still pinching myself. It’s such an honor. I’ve been a part of a lot of great work in Brightmoor and beyond that I hope made a difference, and I still carry those lessons with me. But coming to Forgotten Harvest and witnessing the impact we have is truly humbling. I had never done anything on this scale, so I had a lot to learn, but it’s been an amazing lesson in leadership and responsibility. And it’s one of the most gratifying roles I've ever had because I know that the decisions that we make here are impacting so many lives.”
His deep commitment to the city and years of experience working in some of its most challenging neighborhoods have made him realize just how critical it is to nurture the people who might not be benefitting directly from the improvements happening closer to the city center.
“We need to look out for the people living in our neighborhoods, and we’ve still got work to do in that regard, particularly with the schools. But it's not all about classroom work or increasing budgets. Some of that work needs to happen in the neighborhoods so that before the child even goes to school or after they leave class, they're walking through safe neighborhoods and into stable homes. That means doing things like cleaning up neighborhoods and creating access to job opportunities for parents, but it also means we need to help those folks believe that their dreams can come true in Detroit.”
He believes nonprofit organizations like Forgotten Harvest and The Brightmoor Alliance, as well as strong city leadership, play a vital role in filling that gap.
“Nonprofits are definitely the unsung heroes, but Detroit has always been — and still is — a place where leadership matters. I know that sounds like a fundamental truth, but it can’t be overstated. If I go to cities like Chicago or New York, I don’t need to know who the mayor is or what their plans are for the city. Those places are already fantastic, and people visit or move there to be a part of that. But we still have a long way to go before we get to that level… Before Detroit is a draw in and of itself and we don’t need press talking about the turnaround to make people want to come here. To me, that all starts with leadership. Mayor Duggan has been a great leader, but our progress is still fragile, so we need other strong leaders to come in even after he leaves office if we’re going to keep moving forward.”
Indeed, Mayes's story and remarkable contributions to Detroit are a testament to what’s possible when we find the courage to find our true selves and follow our dreams no matter where they might lead.
“The source of my happiness and contentment is the fact that I’m able to be myself; I don't have to be anybody else, anywhere, ever. The man Forgotten Harvest hired is the same man that my wife married and the same father my son knows — with all the flaws and with all the good parts. But until you find something that drives you — your why, your reason — you’ll risk having to be somebody else in some part of your life. So find that ‘something,’ because life is about more than just breathing — it's about using your experiences to contribute to the experiences of others. That’s what makes this whole life thing richer for all of us. But you don’t get to feel that magic until you’re ready to be vulnerable enough to identify your true path. It won't be easy, but once you get there, it'll be the only place you will ever want to be.”
Today, Mayes remains committed to bolstering the city’s development by perpetuating the very values that his mother instilled in him early on: Discipline, hard work, education, spirituality, and having good character when nobody is watching. Nonetheless, it takes more than one man to create lasting change, so, we should all heed his call to dig deep and discover our purpose. And, while we’re at it, let’s do something to leave Detroit a little better than we found it… Something that will inspire greatness in others… Something that will serve the next generation and the generations after that… Something… That will make mom proud.