CU Denver alum Brad Reubendale, executive director of SAME (So All May Eat) Café on East Colfax, knows all too well what it means to lose everything. At 17, he and his family were excommunicated from the Missouri cult he’d been raised in. “The only humans I knew were my brothers and my parents until I got my feet back under me working in youth services for the Salvation Army.”
Reubendale managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology/criminology from Missouri State University in 2006, became involved in evangelical Christianity through his work with Christian youth groups, and endured conversion therapy, “the pray-away-the-gay thing,” he says. “I did an internship with the conversion organization Exodus International and have been trying to overcome any harm that I caused ever since.”
After earning a master’s in divinity at Denver Seminary in 2011, Reubendale began the process of becoming an Anglican priest. “I had started a youth program and loved what I was doing but I was deep into the conversion therapy world and it wasn’t working,” he recalls.
Confronting His Truth
In 2012, on the verge of suicide, he realized “maybe it would be better if I’m just gay instead of dead,” he says. “I felt the clouds part, and the awareness that ‘Brad, you are not toxic.’ At that moment I knew I was going to live.”
The Anglican Church excommunicated him when he came out. Since he’d been living with seminary students, he ended up experiencing homelessness for nine months. He began visiting SAME Café, an innovative restaurant founded in 2006, dedicated to nourishing people with dignity in exchange for contributions of time, money, or produce.
“I had lost access to healthy food,” Reubendale recalls. “I have low blood sugar and I would go into the café and quietly put a dollar in the box but I had nice clothes and nobody guessed I was struggling.”
Determined to get his career back on track in 2014, he ran the education program for the youth homelessness nonprofit Urban Peak and later served as program director for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in Boulder.
“I was asking every nonprofit director I spoke to how they got their job,” he says. “They said you have to get fundraising experience and a master’s in nonprofit management doesn’t hurt.”
Finding His True Calling through CU Denver
Reubendale enrolled in CU Denver’s graduate certificate in nonprofit management, at the School of Public Affairs, in 2016, and soon began applying for executive director positions with nonprofits. He was delighted to discover that SAME Café was hiring.
“It had been a mom-and-pop operation founded by this wonderful couple and I wanted to replicate it around the country,” he says. “After five months of interviews, I told them I had other job offers and needed to know and they said ‘yes.’”
Reubendale took over for Brad and Libby Birky in 2017. “I learned in the nonprofit management program at CU Denver that most nonprofit founders kill their organizations by loving them so much they won’t let go,” he says. “I brought the Birkys the research on that and we created a position for them so they didn’t have any legal fiduciary responsibility but could still be advisors. To their credit, they stepped back and let me run with it and they’re one of the best friends of the organization now.”
Reubendale calls CU Denver’s nonprofit management certificate program “one of the best educational experiences of my life,” he says. “I use what I learned there every single day. It helped me think creatively about how to stay lean while having the most impact. The social entrepreneurship class taught by John Ronquillo was incredibly helpful and the nonprofit financial management class taught by Erik Estrada filled in all the gaps I needed to run the organization.”
Reubendale and staff members continue the collaboration begun by the Birkys with CU Professor Rene Galindo, who teaches Food Justice in City & Schools.
“Brad Reubendale and staff members from the SAME Café have been guest speakers every semester in my food justice class since 2017,” Galindo said. “It was clear from listening to Brad speak that he cared for the students and their education. He helped the students understand the significance of the SAME Café through personal stories of how the café’s customers had impacted his life. His stories taught the students to see the human element of addressing food inequities.”
Feeding Future Dreams
Reubendale has begun creating a network of grassroots-driven SAME cafes around the country, opening a second location in Toledo, Ohio, later this summer, and has received the green light to move forward with another in Pueblo.
“Food insecurity is often the first indicator of challenges in people’s lives,” he says. “You can be insecure with food while you’re waiting for a paycheck all the way up to 35 years and everything in between.”
He’s proud of SAME Cafe’s contribution to providing access to healthy food, so often out of reach to those in need, and indirectly teaching how to obtain and prepare affordable, healthy food. Feeding his dream has transformed a life that once seemed hopeless.
“Listening to people’s stories, especially those living on the margins, I’ve received way more help in this position than I’ve ever offered anybody,” he says. “SAME Café saved my life twice. The first time when I needed healthy food and the second time when I needed to remember that humanity is good.”