“Silverbackks is what happens when you get a group of people together who don’t know the word ‘no.’” So says Silverbackks volunteer Ami Weidler-Hyten, a member of the nonprofit organization’s leadership team who has worked with Silverbackks since it formed in 2012.
Seeking to fill gaps in the community, Silverbackks has grown from its well-known beginnings of founder Jude Quinn handing out cold water from his van during a particularly hot Topeka summer to an organization that enlists about 100 volunteers per week.
And while Quinn, who now lives in Chicago, no longer leads the organization on a regular basis, Silverbackks’ nine programs continue to be run by its volunteers, who take its mission statement “Lead. Help. Build. Protect” to heart.
“Lead” is a particularly important part of the organization’s mission, which relies on Topekans to see a need and fill it.
“Folks will come to us with a need that’s not being met elsewhere,” Weidler-Hyten said. “No one in leadership will tell that person no.”
That was the case when Jessi Whitehead helped launch SilverSupper, a nightly meal program serving children from birth through age 18 at three Topeka community centers.
“Jude and a few others were handing out water bottles at Hillcrest Community Center, and they were noticing the kids were hungry,” she said.
That prompted Quinn and his wife to recruit Whitehead and her sister to do something about it. Today, SilverSupper serves 275 meals a week.
SilverSunday, a weekly program that serves home-cooked meals to the homeless and under-homed, continues to be the flagship program of the organization, serving at least 200 meals each Sunday at 408 S.W. Jackson.
And while the hot meals they serve fill a vital physical need, the volunteers also are providing a human connection that many patrons lack the other six days of the week.
“Some people have come for two years of Sundays,” Weidler-Hyten said. “We ask them about their kids. They’re going to tell us if they have a job lead, or if they have cancer, or if they just had a new grandchild. That’s a meaningful experience for all of us.”
Because Silverbackks has no paid employees, most volunteers serve on top of working full time and tending to family responsibilities.
Whitehead, who has five children ranging in age from 5 to 15 years, says she usually volunteers four or five hours a week, but if it’s a busy season, it’s closer to 12 hours. Despite the time commitment, Silverbackks is a priority for her.
“I’m setting a good example for my kids and filling needs for people in our community,” Whitehead said. “I just make time. I have to.”
Whitehead’s children often accompany her when she serves, and several of the patrons know her children’s names. It’s that kind of connection Silverbackks volunteers believe help make their efforts successful with patrons.
“They’re comfortable coming to us, and they keep coming back because they know they’re welcome,” Whitehead said.
Weidler-Hyten, who works full time as the executive director for programs and operations at an independent living resource center, says her work with Silverbackks has made her more effective at her job because she is more empathetic.
“It has helped me and my agency do a better job in our work providing advocacy and services for folks with disabilities,” she said.
Weidler-Hyten said other organizations also could learn from Silverbackks’ format, which empowers volunteers to take change into their own hands.
“It would be fantastic to see the model replicated in other places,” she said. “It’s quite frankly stupid-simple.”
By helping other organizations better serve their communities, Silverbackks is continuing its mission to bridge gaps.
“Making connections in the community was how the whole thing really got started,” Weidler-Hyten said. “It’s what got people in the van that first time.”