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This Year’s Heads of the Table Awards Celebrate Five Change-Makers

There was someone Joel Rivas had in mind when he started Heard, a wellness program for people in the food and beverage industry: himself.

“I’ve worked in the service industry since I was 17, and for a good few years I struggled with substance abuse,” he says. “I got clean later on, but it wasn’t until the ‘why’ of my life was addressed that I could really address the addiction part, the mental health issues I had.”

Using his background in restaurants and bars along with his experience working in health care business development, Rivas launched his nonprofit, Saint City Culinary Foundation, in San Antonio in 2017, with Heard being his first initiative.

“Our industry is full of workers who are wired givers, and chances are they are not filling their cup back up after hours of serving the public,” Rivas says. “They make $2.13 an hour, plus tips, so they can’t afford therapy. A lot of people fill that with other things.”

The first few years were slow going. Restaurant workers initially didn’t take to the in-person support groups; sometimes Rivas had 5 to 15 people; other weeks there would be no one. Heard expanded to Austin and Houston, while also building out its telehealth counseling sessions and free programming: monthly educational mixers focused on anything from finance to sign language, yoga classes, and industry run clubs. Once the pandemic hit, Rivas could sense Heard would be needed more than ever.

“I knew it was going to be rough ahead,” he says. “I knew I had to listen.”

Calls poured in, not only from restaurant workers but from therapists and therapy groups around the country offering to help. In 2021, Heard collaborated with Capital Area Counseling, an Austin-based mental health clinic that has a lot of experience supporting restaurant workers, to offer one-on-one therapy for $10 a session. That year, Rivas saw “a big jump” in the total number of restaurant workers reached through Heard: 400.

“This is my third time in therapy,” says Matt Garcia, chef and co-owner of GiGi’s Deli in San Antonio (which is currently on hiatus). “The first two didn’t mesh, but with Heard, these counselors understand our dynamic as people in food and beverage. Slim margins, tight labor, everything is day-to-day, and nothing is good enough. A lot of us felt like this for a long time, even before COVID.”

Garcia began meeting with a Heard counselor last December, when he was recovering from a broken leg and figuring out where he was going next as a chef. 

“My whole world was changing and I’m where I am today because of the work I have done with my therapist,” he says. “A lot of times it feels like there is no support from your job, your neighbors, your local government. Heard is there.”

In partnership with Capital Area Counseling, Heard is now providing mental health first aid classes to local restaurants and bars, to train restaurant workers on how to identify and address mental health issues among their coworkers. It’s also working to make affordable telehealth services available nationally by 2024.

 

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