By Brian Hitsky
Professor Henry Higgins turned a working-class girl into a cultured member of high society in “My Fair Lady.”
Cuenca’s Bob Higgins is turning his project to help others into a first-year success — The Cuenca Soup Kitchen. Celebrating its one-year anniversary in November, the soup kitchen feeds 140 unfortunate individuals, most of them Venezuelan and Colombian refugees, four days per week (Tuesday through Friday).
Higgins, 65, came to Cuenca six-years ago. “I was living in Mesa, Arizona when it got to be 127 degrees. I couldn’t stand it anymore. Two friends living in Cuenca invited me down. I looked it up on a map to figure out where is this place.”
The Cuenca Soup Kitchen started out small and has become a much bigger organization the past 12 months. It has moved twice, and is now housed in the Posada San Francisco on Padre Aguirre.
Higgins’ varied and unusual business career has prepared him to manage and organize the soup kitchen.
He was born in Queens, New York but spent the majority of his adult life in New Hampshire. His father died when he was five and Higgins found himself floundering as a young boy. Needing a way to ground himself, he connected with the church, which put him in charge of running clothing drives and other social programs for the congregation.
His curiosity was triggered at a young age and he began to research, read books and had some success running events for the poor. “Everyone was complimentary and I was given more responsibilities. I knew I could do this,” Higgins recalled. “I researched and learned about poverty, homelessness and abuse. Those lessons stuck with me”
Higgins later went on to the University of Delaware, where he earned a degree in theater. That started a career of stops and starts — first one thing and then another, he says.
He worked off Broadway in experimental theater, became a professional magician, where he performed magic shows for major corporations, and was vice president of the New England Speakers Association, a group of professional speakers and trainers.
He eventually went back to school to obtain a Master’s Degree in marriage and family therapy and became licensed to practice therapy. His son, one of his two children, said his dad has a “four-year attention span when it comes to careers.”
Higgins has organized event planning for restaurants, including murder mystery dinner theater performances, improv comedy and magic shows, often acting in his own productions.
“My passion is to start organizations and businesses, but once something gets up and running, I am on to other things,” Higgins said. “I am not so much interested in maintenance as I am in creation.”
At 6-feet, Higgins towers above many of the people he helps. His nature is to always help others, he says. “When I walk along the street and see a woman with a baby tied to their back sitting in the sun selling limes for eight hours a day, it breaks my heart,” he said.
Sustainable Cuenca, non-profit corporate name for the Cuenca Soup Kitchen, now has an outreach program that goes into the community and hands out bag lunches to the Ecuadorian working poor. “At first they looked up and saw this tall gringo trying to give them food and they refused,” he said. “It took a while to gain their trust.”
Higgins will be “missing in action” at the soup kitchen for a couple of months, the result of needed knee surgery. He’s got everything organized, however, so the soup kitchen shouldn’t miss a beat. Veteran staff members are well-trained and all procedures are written down. There’s no payroll since no one is paid. Everyone is a volunteer.
“I had a knee replacement 25 years ago and now I have to have it replaced again.” he said. “Then my other knee is bone-on-bone so after rehabbing the first one, it’s under the knife again.” The replacement surgery for knee number one was on December 12.
Higgins said that one big challenge in the work of helping others is funding. He reports that he is always thinking and planning how to pay for the next big bag of rice, the hundreds of rolls for the sandwiches and the milk and desert for the kids. It’s a labor of love that always gets done but needs community support.
Like his knees, it’s a constant struggle, but one that has been a great success in year one — just like Professor Higgins’ elocution lessons.