Austin Pearce

Age: 41
Resides: Hickory
Family: Wife Cami Hepler

Where are you from?
I grew up in Lenoir, and I moved here for the first time in 1996. I had come back from Europe, where I blew an inheritance over a year and a half. It wasn't a big inheritance. I came back with nothing but a lot of knowledge and a lot of understanding. It was right after high school. Against my father's advice, I left and didn't come back for a year and a half.

He had moved to Hickory and gotten married while I was gone, so I moved here and went to CVCC to get my Associate's degree in Liberal Arts. I was working two jobs, for Drips Coffee House and bartending at night for Ham's, and then I went on the road. The company that owns Ham's put together this team to open eight stores over three years all across the state. I was part of that team, so I traveled for a couple of years. I've been in a ton of North Carolina towns, seems like all of them, and I'd been to all 50 states during that time period, too.

Then I got a job opportunity in Breckenridge, Colorado working for Breck Brewery. It was a pretty big deal for a 23-year-old kid to work for a brewery and manage it. I did that for a couple years, but Breckenridge was not a place you settle in. My brother was getting married, my sister was having a baby, and it just seemed like a good time to come home.

When I came home, I started working as the sous chef at Catawba Country Club. Then I worked at the Melting Pot and the Cajun steak and seafood joint it became later. I was there when I started seeing Cami, who is my wife now.

How did you two meet?
I played guitar in a bluegrass band with her father when I was 19. I still play, but I don't play a lot. You have to have a passion for that kind of thing. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything, and I really wasn't. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't like I couldn't breathe without playing so I got a real job.

It was St. Paddy's Day. I had been there all day working, and I stayed after work because my dad had shown up. Cami was there, and I hadn't seen her in a decade. My father was sitting on one side of me, and she was sitting on the other. I remember him elbowing me and saying, "So, is she taking you home or what?" Just like that. In this “I've had too much wine” kind of voice. I ignored it. Cami's sitting there, and I'm embarrassed. About three, four minutes later, he does it again, a little louder this time. Finally, she just looks at me and says, "You need a lift?" I said, "Great!"

On the way home, I said, "Hey, I'd love to take you out. I'd love for us to go out on a date." She said, "Well, the ACC tournament's on and State's playing Carolina." I like to tell people the sky opened and the dove descended. I was like, "Holy moly, this girl's for me."

How did you end up as Executive Director of the Hickory Soup Kitchen?
I got a job with an assisted living facility thinking it would be daytime hours. It is, but it's 365 days a year, three meals a day, cooking classes… I did it for three-and-a-half years, and I will tell you, it totally prepared me for this job.

I don't know that I could have done this job without doing that one first. When you see the amount of crisis that happens in one's life in a setting like that, and I'm not just talking about the residents, but their families, their extended families, the people who work there from the Executive Director to the Resident Assistant, it’s fire, fire, fire, fire.

I had decided the 65-hour work weeks were getting pretty rough. I thought, "You know, I need to do something different and just take a step back." The Hickory Soup Kitchen manager at the time had had a stroke. The board members were taking on the administrative duties while they looked for someone. My resume got passed along, and they interviewed me. I've never been vetted for a job like that in my life. In fact, I've always left the interview, even if I didn't get the job, thinking, "Nailed it." I did great at interviews. But this one was different.

There were three board members down at one end of this six-foot table, and I was at the other. It was cold, and the old Soup Kitchen had what looks like bars on the windows. It was bright because there were all these windows, but they didn't turn on the lights. It was like a firing squad. They asked me questions I'd never been asked.

Afterwards, I called my wife and told her, “They’re never going to give me that job. I guess tomorrow I'll make a couple phone calls, because I need to have some kind of income coming in." The Soup Kitchen’s treasurer at the time worked for the public accounting firm where my wife works. She came down the hallway while I was still on the phone and said, "It went great, they're going to hire him!" Sure did. While we were on the phone. I never cried so hard in my life.

The first day I came to work, I was so grateful and thankful. I don't pray in the car very often, but I did for the first two months of this job, every day, because it was a big responsibility. At the time I didn't realize how big. They told me it was going to be a 20-hour-a-week job. They said, "This is easy." And it is in a way. It's not like the private sector. It's not like squeezing nickels out of pennies for a multimillion dollar company like an assisted living or even a restaurant chain or country club. It was different.

What makes it different?
When I was at the assisted living facility, the walk in compressor went out. For about two months, I was driving back and forth to another facility, using their coolers. All the red tape was such a pain. I thought it was going to be like that when I came here.

The compressor on our walk-in cooler went out about a month in. I thought, it’s me, it’s my fault. That was a Friday, and by Monday, somebody had called somebody on our board who had called somebody else who went and got a compressor and hooked it up. It's a different world.

When I first came here, I had this Russian breadline thing in my head. I had this cabbage and broth, Oliver Twist, "Can I have some more?" expectation. It’s not like that at all. It's meatloaf and mashed potatoes. It’s what you like to eat.

There’s a gene in every one of us, regardless of where you're from or what you've been through, that reacts when it sees another living entity in pain or suffering. Some people are better at hiding it than others, but I would challenge them to come here and try to hide it with the satisfaction one gets from the immediate impact they’re having on another individual's life. That might just be from knowing their name. It could just be knowing that their mother's sick. Knowing who you're working with makes a difference.

The first time I realized that was with a local Rotary Club. I've spoken to every civic group in Catawba County, and the surrounding counties, for that matter, so if you've gotten away with not hearing my spiel, you've been under a rock. I was asked to speak to a Rotary and I said, “You know, I've spoken to your Rotary. I appreciate it and all, but I just saw you last year. Can't we do something a little different?" He said, “Well, maybe we can come to the soup kitchen and tour it." I said, "That's cool, but why don't y'all have lunch? Come through the line, go through the buffet and get what you want, sit down, have lunch and I'll get to you."

I had a meeting that day, so I was in the office until about noon. I was a little nervous, to be honest with you, because I knew they were showing up. When I got down the hallway, I saw two Rotarians sitting with three of our guests, and one Rotarian sitting with two of our guests, and they were laughing and carrying on. It was just like a normal day. I was so pleasantly surprised.

The personal time and investment you give at a table, even if it's just 15 minutes, is something I can't pay for. You can't pay for that kind of value. It's from a parent to a child, from a friend to a friend. If money could buy that, I wouldn't have a job. That's the truth. That was happening even before I got here; I just recognized it that day. It’s not just about being here for our guests. It's truly not. It's a 50/50, it's not even a 60/40 or 70/30. It is truly a 50/50 for everybody who’s here. I've seen that happen with so many people.

We have 12 special needs folks who come through here every week and work. We started with one, and the impact has just grown. Now they have their parties here. They dance, they have a DJ and food. All because we let one person come, because one person needed it. Vets Helping Vets has a meeting every third Thursday. We bring in at-risk youth and teach them how to cook for four hours every week. I like the fact that the building's here for the community and not just for us. It's not a great business model to be open from 7 to 1 and then close your doors the rest of the time. That's part of what started the Hope Project, too.

Tell us more about the Hope Project.
It’s kind of out of our wheelhouse to have this other project with employment and transportation going on, but we have an active audience of folks who say they want to work. We did a series of surveys over three weeks. The surveys said that a little over 70% of our guests are willing and able to work. They said if you put a job in front of them today, they would do it. I assumed that number was high; we all did. We were all like, "That can't be right. When someone has to be here at 6:15 in the morning to get in the van, then we'll see. The proof's in the pudding, right?" Well, it’s been twelve weeks, and we have a 93% participation rate.

We started on a Monday and that Wednesday, it was 23 degrees. At 6:15, there they were, grinning ear to ear, lunch pails in hand, ready to go. We have guys working overtime every Saturday. Three of them were living on our property during the snow in November and December, in front of my door, had a little camp out here. They're all working. Every one of them.

That’s when we decided to pull in Greenway [Transportation]. We have a bunch of people we could be sending to work, so we started talking about a 23-seat bus and a specific route. We were going to raise the money to pay them, and we thought maybe it was time to start getting our folks to put some skin in the game. We thought maybe we would ask them to pay half. If it's a $2.50 bus pass, maybe they would pay $1.25. We sat down the next week with the six folks in the program. I'm calling them the Big Six, because they've really set the bar high. When asked how much they would be willing to pay, they said all of it. Not half, not $12.50 a week, $25 a week. “No problem, we want to do that. Not only will we, but we want to.”

That really speaks to the power of human dignity.
I’ve been so surprised by the questions I've gotten over the last decade about our guests. “Isn't it easier for them just to live off food stamps? Isn't it easier not to have the responsibility?” No, it's not. And they know it. It’s really taught me, too, that money talks. No matter where you are on the socioeconomic scale, you have the same problems everybody else has. The difference is the money. You have a 14-year-old boy who won't listen, you have a grandpa who's sick, you have a father who's got a substance abuse problem.

I put myself in it. My dad was a single parent, raised three kids on his own, but he liked to drink white liquor. A lot of it. The debt was up and down, the IRS was after him here and there. But we thought we lived in a house without want, because the money didn't stop. He could dig his way out every time, and he did. But he had all those problems. My mama left when I was nine, my sister was two, my brother was twelve. A pretty big bomb went off in the house. The difference was the money.

You have such a strong drive to help others. What keeps you going?
Half a pot of coffee. I think this community has given me a ton of opportunity to have an impact on other people, but there's an immediate enrichment of my own life as well. I say that selfishly, because I'm very privileged to have this job and I don't take it lightly. I didn't think I'd have a job like this. I used to tell it this way: let’s say you made bicycles. You started when you were 15, and you learned how to make bikes. You made bikes for sale, for profit, for all kinds of different bike companies up until the time you were in your thirties. Then suddenly someone said, "Okay, you get to make whatever kind of bike you want. And you get to give every single one you make away." That's what I get to do every day. We give it all away.

I get to see the best in everybody; that's part of what keeps me going, too. This place brings out the best in everybody. Even if I'm out in the community talking about it, people react by asking, "Hey, how can I come help?" This community steps up, it always steps up. I've never seen a case where we saw a need that wasn't filled by a city council person, a church, a business, an individual.

What do you do for fun?
I love to fish. I like being outside, I like movies, love the Footcandle Film Society. I'm a foodie. Every time a new restaurant opens, I love it. I love to eat, and I like to garden. I stay busy.

I was one of those kids who didn’t know if he was going to make it. I had it in my head, Neil Young's "Burn Out Early," right? I had the “just get it over with” angst growing up. I made it to 40, and now I have this “every second needs to count” thing. Somebody said, "You need to meditate." I was like, "I don't have time for that." Who’s got time to sit still, man, seriously? I do feel like every day, you have to pack it in. Not to the detriment of everything else, just trying to make every second count as much as possible. I have a spiritual advisor on my board, and he's who I talk to about this stuff. We’ve got it figured out: God, Cami and family, Soup Kitchen, and then everything else. You keep those in priority and most everything else takes care of itself.

Interviewed March 25, 2019