Meet the Woman at Wendy’s Fighting for Children in Foster Care

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It All Began with Dave

Mary Schell, Wendy’s® Chief Public Affairs Officer, joined the Company in 1995 when the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption® was still relatively new, and was primarily focused on raising awareness for foster care adoption. 

At the time, Mary worked on the government relations team. In this role, she joined Dave on many trips to Washington, D.C., where he often spoke with government officials about how many children were aging out of foster care due to the complicated system. In her words, “Dave was tireless.” He was in a hurry to raise awareness for the cause and quickly solve the problem, and he wasn’t afraid to use his celebrity status to do so. 

In 2001, Mary received a phone call from Dave who asked if they could meet. This wasn’t unusual, as Mary spent many hours in Dave’s office discussing politics. But, this meeting was different. Dave asked Mary to serve as a trustee on the board of the Foundation – an offer she quickly accepted.

Seventeen years later, we’re proud to say that Mary is still carrying on Dave’s legacy by trying to solve one of our nation’s most important issues. 

“My first 21 years on the board were remarkable, with a committed team and strong leadership. The lessons I learned are invaluable, and I feel comfort in knowing that I understand where the organization needs to go and what it will take to get there.”

Where the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption is Headed

Mary recently spoke to the International Franchise Association, where she chairs the Legislative Action Group, about her goals for the Foundation in 2018 and beyond. With ambitions to dramatically scale the unique Wendy’s Wonderful Kids® recruiting model by convincing all 50 states to join those already on board to make this model their official approach to adoption, the end goal is simple: find a forever home for every child in the foster care system.

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New Dave Thomas Foundation Chair: These Children Need Us

By Andrew Parker

Did you know: many of the widely-held myths and assumptions about adoption simply aren’t true? For example, foster care adoption normally costs little to nothing. Individuals over 55 years old can provide a healthy and loving environment for a foster child, despite many Americans believing that isn’t the case. These are the types of misconceptions that the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, and its new Chair, Mary Schell, seek to change.

In the late 1990s, after working for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Schell was presented with a rare opportunity to start a government relations department from scratch at iconic fast-food restaurant brand Wendy’s International. She jumped at the chance to work with company founder Dave Thomas, a longtime member of the International Franchise Association. Thomas encouraged Schell to join the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption’s Board of Trustees in 2001. Early this year, the Foundation’s Board elected Schell its new Chair, along with Vice-Chair Todd Penegor, Wendy’s President and CEO. Schell also serves as Chief Public Affairs Officer for Wendy’s.

 Through programs and strategic awareness efforts, the Foundation addresses the needs of children in foster care waiting to be adopted, while fast-tracking the adoption process for the longest-waiting children. The Wendy’s founder played a key role in the Foundation until his death in 2002, and his impact lives on. “He understood the role government plays in the life – and future – of children waiting to be adopted from foster care,” said Schell. Getting involved with the Foundation, she continued, was a chance to “bring together my experience in political advocacy with a cause our brand enthusiastically embraces. More importantly, it would help solve one of the most significant social issues of our time, and that was a meaningful and exciting challenge.”

A mother of two sons, Schell said being a parent “reminds you how vulnerable children are, and how fleeting childhood is.” Thomas was impatient with the slow-moving government systems that frequently impede the foster care adoption process, a concern shared by Schell. Thomas used his considerable public persona and resources to change things, Schell said, and his legacy of giving back still inspires the Wendy’s family.

Schell’s goals for the Foundation include bolstering the Foundation’s signature program, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, which issues grants for social work professionals to receive specialized training in an evidence-based, child-focused recruitment model. The program is up to three times more effective than typical adoption strategies, she explained. Several U.S. states are on board to make this model their official approach to adoption, and the Foundation has an ambitious strategy to scale the program in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Once that happens, “we’ll dramatically increase the number of adoptions in America and end the crisis of children ‘aging out’ of foster care. My goal as chair is to ensure the Foundation has adequate resources and is maximizing its opportunity to partner with those who share our commitment.”

As a business, Wendy’s faces many of the same challenges as others in the restaurant space – expanding sales and managing costs that pressure operating margins in a highly competitive marketplace. Schell believes that Wendy’s franchisees, operators and suppliers are crucial proponents of the brand’s success. The company’s commitment to food quality, international growth and a well-developed franchise development program are strengths as the brand nears its 50th anniversary in 2019.

One of the challenges for the Foundation remains educating and convincing the decision-makers in government (government systems hold the custody of children in care) who can co-invest and implement the model proven through the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program. “Finding a family for every child who is waiting can be achieved if government will embrace our approach. We have the research, the reach and experience that proves how successful it is, but we need political support, too,” she noted.

Schell, who also serves on the board of the National Restaurant Federation, on the National Council of Chain Restaurants at the National Retail Federation, and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, stressed the importance of advocacy and outreach programs for all businesses, and especially those involved with franchising. Wendy’s is 95 percent franchised, she said, meaning that most of its owners are part of the communities they serve. The franchise network’s support of the Foundation at the restaurant level “allows us to reach millions of people each day and raise awareness about children waiting in foster care,” she said. The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program is responsible for more than 7,000 adoptions. “We have a plan to do much more and improve local communities along the way. It’s exciting, but we’re also in a hurry because 25,000 children age out of foster care every year without a family or place to call home,” Schell explained.

Wendy’s government relations strategy seeks to create a system-wide culture of political involvement. “We invest in educating franchisees on issues important to them and their businesses, so they can be activated as a nimble, effective grassroots network – and it has worked very well,” she said.

“Dave Thomas believed that we all have a responsibility to the children in foster care,” Schell continued. “We embrace that sentiment and engage in finding solutions because these children need us – and in doing so we contribute to stronger communities and a better country.” Wendy’s Wonderful Kids offers an option to children and communities that are suffering and looking for permanent homes. “We care about local communities because it’s where we and our franchisees live and work, and we are all eager to help,” she added.

Andrew Parker is Editor-in-Chief of Franchising World magazine and IFA Senior Manager of Publishing. For more information about the Foundation, visit www.davethomasfoundation.org. Find out more about franchise opportunities at Wendy’s by visiting www.franchise.org/wendys-franchise.

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