One sandwich at a time, Johnson County native helps homeless in NYC

Teddy Fitzgibbons
Teddy Fitzgibbons

New Yorker Muñoz Price has nothing but nice things to say about Kansas City — especially Johnson County.

“I want to thank the city for having Teddy and his family there,” said Price, who was once homeless, but thanks to a Prairie Village native is back on his feet. “It says a lot.”

Price is talking about Teddy Fitzgibbons, 25, who moved to New York City three years ago. The economics major has made a big impact in the homeless community with his nonprofit, Hearty Start.

On the “Rachel Ray Show” Feb. 23, Fitzgibbons told the celebrity his story.

A few years ago,he was walking to work and a homeless man asked for the other half of his breakfast sandwich. Fitzgibbons handed it over, and for several months carried an extra sandwich to share.

“I would say that was the light bulb moment, but it wasn’t when I had the idea for the full model of Hearty Start. It was when I realized there was an opportunity to connect the dots and provide fairly affordable, readily available breakfast sandwiches to an unfortunately growing, and under-served homeless population here in New York,” Fitzgibbons says by phone.

Currently an analyst at Bain Capital Ventures, he had the know-how to start a nonprofit. In July 2015, with the help of a few of his cousins and friends, he launched Hearty Start.

The model is unique, and one he’s proud of. He says it took a while to work out.

“I was thinking about how to scale this. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but it was something I could easily afford, you know, an extra $2.50 to $3 a day was very doable for anyone in my position. I knew there was an opportunity there.”

Hearty Start became a subscription-based charity.

“I think it’s far more sustainable to get someone to sign up to donate a sandwich once a month as opposed to writing a bigger check once a year,” Fitzgibbons said.

Donors first decide what kind of sandwich they’d like to give, how many, and the frequency: weekly, daily or monthly.

From July through October of 2015 he and his cousins delivered the sandwiches themselves each morning, starting with two locations in Manhattan, and 10 to 15 sandwiches a week. They grew through word of mouth.

By fall of that year the donations had increased to the point that Fitzgibbons knew he needed to hire help. Enter Price.

Price, 53, moved to New York from Kingston, Jamaica, at age 5. He had been struggling with homelessness for years.

“I decided to uplift myself by going back to school.”

He has a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in psychology.

“As a result of going back to school, I did an internship at a particular agency that assisted people with homelessness, and that’s where I met Teddy,” Price says by phone.

The two clicked.

After learning about Hearty Start, Price, who’s now a pastor at Reaching Across the World Ministries in Brooklyn, says it “linked up exactly into what my belief system is in terms of what the Bible says about feeding the poor, the homeless, widows and children — looking out for those who are unable to care for themselves.”

About six months ago, Fitzgibbons was named New Yorker of the week by Spectrum News, NY1. One of Rachel Ray’s producers was intrigued and contacted Fitzgibbons and Price to appear on her show.

Donations skyrocketed after their appearance, with new donors from 40 states and several countries. Hearty Start is now delivering about 600 sandwiches five days a week in four locations in Harlem, East Village, and Midtown East, and plans to hire another team member to keep up.

ConAgra, Ray’s sponsor, donated $10,000, which Ray matched off-camera.

“The beauty of the model is that we can turn it up as donations turn up, so we would just slowly add new areas or a new day of the week to donate,” Fitzgibbons says.

Back in Prairie Village, his parents, Laura and Edward Fitzgibbons, couldn’t be prouder — but his mom isn’t surprised that he took on such a huge endeavor.

“Even as a kid he wasn’t one to throw tantrums, he was just like: ‘All right, let’s figure this out.’ He’s a problem-solver,” Laura Fitzgibbons says.

She says that before his interview with NY1, he called home because he was concerned that he wasn’t actually solving a problem — only temporarily helping.

His mother said she told him: “You’re just making their day better. And maybe that hot sandwich is what enables them to go out and get a job.”

Fitzgibbons has fielded calls and emails from all over the country, asking if he’ll expand to other cities. He tells people he’d be glad to help anyone who’d like to use his model.

Laura Fitzgibbons points out that “the concept he’s created, this website, could be used as a model anywhere. In Kansas City we don’t have breakfast sandwiches on every corner.”

But, she said, someone could use the model for bus passes or hygiene packs.

Each city’s needs and resources are different. Part of the reason Price is so invaluable to the organization is that he knows first-hand what is helpful to the New York homeless.

“Once we hired Muñoz it became a lot more personal for us,” Fitzgibbons says. And it’s been purely personal from the start for Price.

Not only does Price know exactly where to look for homeless people, he also knows what helped him most when he was in that situation. He’s created what he calls a “cheat sheet” of services that he hands out with the sandwiches.

“I do that because I can remember what things helped me navigate the system, know where to go when I was hungry or know where to go to wash when things weren’t readily available,” Price said. “There are places out there that do help people, they’re like landing strips; that’s how I like to look at them.”

What took Price most by surprise with this enterprise was Fitzgibbons himself.

“Most people at a young age are trying to get their lives together, get the car, the house and put themselves on a solid foundation before they start looking out to the community,” Price said.

“When you meet somebody such as Teddy, who has that desire to help people in need, that says a lot about his parents and his upbringing.”