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September 21, 2022

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

“I’ve been working in the service industry since I was 17 and had struggled with substance abuse for a good few years,” he says. “I later cleaned myself up, but it wasn’t until I had explained the ‘why’ of my life that I could really take care of part of the addiction, the mental health issues I was having.”

Leveraging his experience in restaurants and bars and his experience in working on business development in healthcare, Rivas founded his non-profit organization, Saint City Culinary Foundation, in San Antonio in 2017, with Heard being his first initiative.

“Our industry is full of employees who donate wired networks, and chances are they are not refilling their cup after hours of serving the community,” says Rivas. “They earn $ 2.13 an hour plus tips, so they can’t afford therapy. Lots of people fill it with other things. “

The first years passed slowly. Restaurant staff initially did not participate in personal support groups; sometimes Rivas had five to 15 people; in other weeks there would be no one. Heard expanded its operations to Austin and Houston while expanding its telehealth counseling sessions and free programming: monthly educational mixers focusing on everything from finance to sign language, yoga classes, and industry clubs. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, Rivas sensed that Heard was needed more than ever.

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

Calls were coming not only from restaurant employees, but also from therapists and therapeutic groups from all over the country offering help. In 2021, Heard partnered with Capital Area Counseling, an Austin-based mental health clinic that has extensive experience supporting restaurant staff, offering one-on-one therapy for $ 10 per session. That same year, Rivas saw a “big jump” in the total number of restaurant employees who passed 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 suspended). “The first two don’t overlap, but with Heard, these advisers understand our dynamics as people in food and drink. Low margins, tight work, everything is everyday and nothing is good enough. Many of us felt this way for a long time, even before COVID. “

Garcia started dating Heard’s counselor last December as he was recovering from a broken leg and wondering where he would go as a chef.

“My whole world has changed and I am where I am today thanks to the work I have done with my therapist,” she says. “Many times it seems that there is no support from your work, your neighbors, or the local government. I heard it’s there.

In partnership with Capital Area Counseling, Heard now provides mental health first aid classes at local restaurants and bars to train restaurant staff to recognize and resolve mental health problems among their colleagues. It is also working to make affordable telehealth services available nationally by 2024.