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More than 1,300 people dined in or stopped by to donate during the Keepin’ Casey Cookin’ mental health awareness fundraiser hosted at the seven Rex’s Family of Restaurants locations Saturday.
“I’m very grateful that we had a whole day that was committed to this cause, because it just brings up the conversation of mental health,” said Kelly Meuse, general manager at Rex’s American Grill in Steamboat Springs. “It is just so important that it is talked about, normalized and seems approachable to people.”
The successful event, which was planned as a first annual fundraiser, was organized in memory of former Rex’s American Grill head chef Casey Havens, 40, who died by suicide in early March at this home in Steamboat.
A Vermont native, Havens worked at the grill for six years and was described by his friends as a big personality who was full of life. According to his friends, Havens gave 100% in the kitchen, and when not at work, he loved to spend time playing golf.
“Casey was an amazing, very, very smart man (and) always had a witty joke or fun fact,” said Meuse, who was a close friend for five years. “He was an amazing chef (and) just a wonderful presenter of his food.”
After Havens died, Meuse needed to step away from the restaurant and from management in the restaurant group. She came back to the grill in September and worked to help establish the annual awareness event.
These days, Meuse said she spends less time managing the restaurant and more time showing up for people, trying to create a warm, comfortable, happy workplace, where people feel seen, heard and valued.
Lindy Schwanke, Rex’s group business manager, 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 the free counseling fund at REPS, or Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide, and the existing Rex’s Family Employee Mental Health Fund, which is available for employees’ mental health needs ranging from counseling to classes in meditation and yoga.
The restaurants’ general manger also started a local chapter of the support organization CHOW, or Culinary Hospitality Outreach Wellness.
The local small group meetings are hosted at 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays at Rex’s American Grill, which is attached to the Holiday Inn on South Lincoln Avenue. CHOW meetings are open to all local restaurant and hospitality workers.
During the meetings, employees talk with each other about job and life stresses, such as expectations of working through holidays, how it feels to provide services to people all day and the importance of employees monitoring how they feel, Meuse said.
The Denver-based nonprofit was formed in 2018 to support the wellness of employees within the hospitality industry through shared stories, skills and resources. More information is available at ChowCO.org.
“So much of the job is making sure the guest is OK,” Meuse said, but employees need to take care of themselves first.
“The biggest thing that I learned was that you never know what’s going on with people even when you’re working with them for hours,” Meuse said. “It is worth your time and energy to check in on the people around you.”
Mindy Marriott, REPS executive director, said statistics show restaurant industry workers die by suicide at elevated levels. She said employees’ struggles are heightened in the unique culture of a resort community due to factors such as inconsistency of schedules, earnings and sleeping habits, as well as ready access to alcohol.
“It’s a difficult industry to work in in terms of your mental health,” Marriott said. “I’m so impressed with (owner) Rex Brice and his desire to make mental health and suicide prevention a priority in this community.”
Marriott said requests for the REPS free counseling program tripled from 2019 to 2021. REPS also offers free one-hour training to any group or business.
“The more educated all of the service industry in the community (is), the safer we are all going to be with all those 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 this confidence.”
Each restaurant table Saturday offered information about how to recognize warning signs and the suicide crisis phone number. Information and assistance are available via REPS at SteamboatSuicidePrevention.com.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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