More than 1,300 people dined or stopped by to donate during the Keepin ‘Casey Cookin’ mental health fundraiser hosted at Rex’s Family of Restaurants locations on Saturday.
“I am so thankful we took an entire day for this cause, because it sparks conversation about mental health,” said Kelly Mewes, general manager of Rex American Grill in Steamboat Springs. “It’s very important that it be talked about, made normal and seem more accessible to people.”
Planned as the first annual fundraising event, the successful event was held in memory of former Rex’s American Grill chef Casey Havens, 40, who died by suicide in early March at this Steamboat home.
A native of Vermont, Havens worked at the grill for six years and was described by his friends as a big, full of life character. According to his friends, he gave Havens 100% in the kitchen, and when he wasn’t at work he liked to spend time playing golf.
“Casey was an amazing and very smart guy (and was) always with a witty joke or fun fact,” said Meuse, who has been a close friend for five years. “He was a great chef (and) just a wonderful presenter of his food.”
After Havens’ death, Meuse needed to stay away from the restaurant and from management in the restaurant group. She returned to the grill in September and worked to help set up the annual outreach event.
These days, Meuse said she spends less time running the restaurant and more time appearing in front of people, in an effort to create a warm, comfortable and happy workplace where people feel seen, heard and appreciated.
Rex Group business manager Lindy Schwanke said Saturday’s event raised $35,000 in food proceeds from the seven restaurants and $1,200 in direct guest donations.
The donations will support REPS’ Free Counseling Fund, or Universal Access to Suicide Prevention, and Rex’s Family Employee Mental Health Fund, available for employees’ mental health needs ranging from counseling to meditation and yoga classes.
The restaurants general manager has also started a local chapter of the CHOW support organization, or Culinary Hospitality Outreach Wellness.
Local small group meetings are hosted at 2:30 PM on Tuesdays at Rex’s American Grill attached to the Holiday Inn on South Lincoln Avenue. CHOW meetings are open to all local restaurant and hospitality workers.
During meetings, employees talk to each other about work and life stresses, such as expectations for work during the holidays, how it feels to serve people throughout the day and the importance of employees monitoring how they are feeling, Meuse said.
The Denver-based nonprofit was founded in 2018 to support employee well-being in the hospitality industry through shared stories, skills, and resources. More information is available at ChowCO.org.
“A big part of the job is making sure the guest is okay,” said Meuse, but employees have to take care of themselves first.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that you never know what’s going on with people even when you’ve been working with them for hours,” said Meuse. “Checking out the people around you is worth your time and energy.”
Mindy Marriott, CEO of REPS, said statistics show restaurant industry workers are dying by suicide at elevated levels. She said employee struggles escalate into the unique culture of the resort community due to factors such as inconsistent schedules, earnings and sleeping habits, as well as easy access to alcohol.
“It’s a tough industry to work in in terms of your mental health,” Marriott said. “I am so impressed (owner) Rex Price and his desire to make mental health and suicide prevention a priority in this community.”
Marriott said that requests for its free REPS counseling program tripled from 2019 to 2021. REPS also offers free one-hour training for any group or company.
“The more educated the service industry is in the community, the safer we will be with all these ears and eyes on each other,” Marriott said. “We need people in the trenches to be trained. Suicide prevention training really empowers people and creates that confidence.”
Every Saturday restaurant table provided information on how to recognize warning signs and a suicide crisis phone number. Information and help is available via REPS at SteamboatSuicidePrevention.com.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.