ON DISHING BREAKFAST, BEING A GOOD NEIGHBOR, AND WHEN ACTING SELFISH IS ANYTHING BUT.
The Bowery Mission has a mission. From its modest headquarters—two mismatched buildings of red brick that stand shoulder to shoulder on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—it has served New York City’s homeless, hungry and poor for nearly 140 years. For legions of the disadvantaged, it’s the go-to place for a hot meal, medical help, and emergency shelter. It’s also got a chapel. You can see the stained glass resurrection from the street.
The Mission is a major operation, one that’s driven by perpetual need. It spills out onto the sidewalk, where men and women cluster at peak hours and volunteers come and go. It’s hard to ignore.
So as Kenneth Cole prepared to open a new store at Bowery & Bond, the advance team took notice. And not long after the store’s doors opened, the team reached out.
Marc: “One of the things I feel strongly about—we feel strongly about—is being a good neighbor. Engaging the communities where we do business. So we approached the head of The Bowery Mission to talk about how we could get involved, and one thing led to another.”
That other thing was breakfast. The Bowery Mission feeds over 500,000 people each year, which is a phenomenal amount of work.
“I thought it would be a natural fit.” (Kenneth Cole has a history of shoe drives—just one of the company’s relief initiatives devoted to the homeless.) “So I personally decided to see what it was about. And a group of us did a breakfast, and we served over 200 folks, and the interaction was one that I found to be—I don’t want to use the term ‘incredibly rewarding’ because it sounds…”
Marc doesn’t want to use the term because it sounds cliched. Also selfish. Coming at it from a different angle, he shares a story from his Massachusetts boyhood, a story about the paradox of giving and giving back:
“My father lost his dad at a young age. And my uncle Marty, my father’s older brother, he took care of the family. All his life he worked with others. And I was always asking him, ‘You do so much, uncle Marty, for people. You take care of everybody. Why?’ And he said to me, ‘Marc, It’s because I’m very selfish.’ This was his philosophy. And he wouldn’t explain it to me. It was a pretty heavy thing to lay on an 8-year-old kid.”
Which brings us back to the paradox of giving, which really does work both ways. And to “rewarding,” which turns out to be exactly the right word.
Because how else do you explain the story of the pastor who prepped Team Kenneth Cole for their first breakfast? This is a man who impressed upon Marc and his fellow volunteers the importance of greeting each person on line with a smile, a kind word. The importance of turning a transaction into a shared moment of connection. The importance of giving that moment its full measure of humility and dignity. Because The Bowery Mission’s work—however gratifying for the givers—really does change lives. The proof is in the pastor: it wasn’t all that many years ago he stood on that same line, both lost and found, in need of a free meal.
Marc has this advice for those who feel a pull toward activism, service and volunteering:
“I see a lot of people trying too hard, then becoming paralyzed. They think everything has to be large scale, that it has to have a massive impact. But it’s pretty amazing what you can do starting with one individual, one situation. My thing is, if you have an impact on one individual you have massive impact.”
Which is to say, don’t try to save the world. Just get out there and start saving it.
Kenneth Cole continues to be a monthly presence at The Bowery Mission breakfasts, sending a team of seven volunteers to hand out trays and dish up oatmeal. Marc likes to be the tray guy—the first point of contact for the people queued up for a morning meal. He likes to be the one that greets them. One tray at a time. One fleeting, deeply human moment at a time. As far work goes, it’s pretty basic stuff. But it’s all part of the Mission.