Finding ways to give back to a community

By Jeff Fox

It’s been a year of adaptation for funeral homes just like virtually every other business in this time of pandemic.

Smaller gatherings. More graveside services. Twice-a-day cleanings of the offices and chapel. Whatever it takes. This week there was a first – a drive-by visitation at the Speaks Chapels funeral home on 39th Street in Independence. 

‘I want this to be a better place to live,’ says Brad Speaks, president and CEO of Speaks Chapels in Independence. The company is this year’s Truman Heartland Community Foundation Corporate Citizen of the Year.

That went well, Brad Speaks said. The family had a safe place to be, and friends and family could pass by for a minute or two of conversation and condolence.

“Our main mission at the funeral home is, clearly, serving the community,” said Speaks, president and CEO of Speaks Chapels. 

The aim is to treat people like family, he said. For that work and for the broader community efforts, Speaks Chapels has been named this year’s Truman Heartland Community Foundation Corporate Citizen of the Year.

The foundation cited Speaks Chapels’ impact on the community through the business itself and through its community engagement. It notes that Brad Speaks and others have been on the boards of the Independence Chamber of Commerce, the Independence Economic Development Council, the Independence Rotary Club, the Fort Osage Educational Foundation, the Kiwanis Club, and the Truman Heartland Community Foundation.

That award and others presented Saturday night in the foundation's 25th annual Toast to Our Towns Gala. It’s been reformatted this year, due to the pandemic, with an event in the auditorium at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence and watch parties at more than 40 places around the community. Citizens of the Year from Eastern Jackson County communities and other awards are presented along with the Corporate Citizen of the Year award.

For Speaks, it’s a matter of giving back to one’s community – getting involved and finding ways to make that community a better place to live, work and raise a family.

“I like to find people that work for us that like that sort of thing,” he said. 

Funeral director Jessica Crossley, he points out, has been on the board of the local Meals on Wheels programs. 

Others that Speaks and other people at the company have been involved with also include the Stone Church weekly community dinner, Hillcrest Transitional Ministries – “Love the work that they do,” Speaks says – and the Independence Civic Council.

Where does that drive come from?

“When I was in high school,” Speaks says with a chuckle, “I took a class called civics, and I think we’re missing that.”

“I want this to be a better place to live,” he adds.

The Civic Council, where Speaks has been a driving force, recently gave money – more than the recipient asked for – to help put up the new mural at the old Comprehensive Mental Health Services building on Winner Road in Englewood. That building is being converted into space to make and show art, part of Englewood’s continued development as a place for artists.

More broadly, it’s one more piece in a long-term effort to build connections among Englewood, the Square and the Truman Library, among other places in the city. That means revitalization and more for visitors to see and enjoy. Speaks talks about the idea enthusiastically.

“It’s gonna happen,” he said.

“Independence needs a win now, probably more than at any time,” he added. Some of that conversation, he said, is about art, creativity and beauty.

Speaks also was a driving force behind the Rotary’s fundraising to build the Independence Uptown Market, which hosts farmers markets and other events on the Square, as well as raising money for new community space at the Truman Presidential Library, which is in the final stages of a massive renovation.

But a community’s needs are endless. How do you not get caught up in that?

“We do what we can,” Speaks says, “and taking the weight of the entire world on your shoulders just ends up with broken shoulders.”

The bigger picture, he said, is continuing to push for growth in the city, meaning more jobs and better lives for families.

“How can we raise the top line?” he asks.

It’s also about local people pitching in.

“I believe we’re better off solving our own problems here in Independence rather than looking to Jefferson City or the federal government,” Speaks said.

The funeral home has been in Independence since 1936, started by Roland and Beth Speaks. Then it passed to their son, Bob Speaks, and today it is in the hands of grandsons Brad and David Speaks.

Being locally owned, Brad Speaks said, the funeral home has some flexibility that other companies might not have.

“We live here,” he said. “We’re going to reinvest our money in our community.”