By Alison Bailin Batz / Photos by Mark Morgan
Thirty years ago, Mark Roden was just another Arizona State University college student.
“My plan was to work toward becoming a teacher and coach,” Roden says. “But thanks to a few hundred cheese sandwiches, my life took a very different direction.”
While a student, Roden loved visiting this new restaurant concept in the Valley called Subway. The brand would soon open its second location in Arizona – on ASU’s campus, to Roden’s delight. By 1988, as Subway opened its 10th location statewide, Roden made a bold move in reaching out to learn about becoming a franchisee.
“Within 70 days, I owned three locations, with eyes to help the brand grow across the Valley and beyond,” he explains.
Over the next three decades, Roden was part of the team that helped to grow the brand to more than 465 locations across Arizona – including more than 40 in the Uptown area – and served in a leadership role for Subway on both the local and national advertising and franchisee boards. He went on to own as many as 58 locations statewide and today owns 51 locations across Arizona and Hawaii.
But, funny enough, his greatest Subway-related successes have nothing to do with sandwiches at all.
“In 1999, fellow franchisees, Arizona Subway Development, vendor partners and I joined together to launch our own nonprofit – Subway Kids & Sports of Arizona,” Roden recalls. “Our aim was to go beyond helping charities via sandwich donations by raising funds to provide sports equipment, uniforms, registration fees, and access to major sporting events for kids who might not otherwise be able to participate.”
Subway Kids & Sports focuses on two major initiatives: Cycle for Success and a formal grant program.
Cycle for Success “rides” into a Valley Title One school each month, surprising two students (chosen via a teacher-led nomination process) who perform random acts of kindness with new bikes, helmets and locks, as well as Subway lunches for their classes.
Each year from January to February 28 (and thanks to an annual fall golf tournament and other board fundraising endeavors), Subway Kids & Sports seeks submissions from child-focused nonprofits across Arizona on how they would best be able to use a $1,000 to $5,000 grant.
“In the early spring, our board sits down with all the submissions to determine how and where to distribute our funds,” Roden explains. “This year, we aim to give more than $65,000 in grants.”
According to Roden, Subway Kids & Sports has touched more than 30,000 local families and is closing in on giving away its millionth dollar by year’s end. The grants have helped organizations including the Frances H. McClelland Pediatric Rehabilitation Center, Southwest Human Development, the Be Kind People Project, Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, the Girl Scouts - Arizona Cactus-Pine Council, Girls on the Run and more.
“In fact, it was a grant submission early on from one local nonprofit that I consider my other major Subway-related success,” he says.
In 2000, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona approached Subway Kids & Sports for a grant to help start a program called Sports Buddies. Intrigued, Roden met with a member of their team in person on the project.
“When I learned that at any given time 300 boys and girls are waiting to be matched and some will wait up to three years, I was motivated to action beyond a check,” explains Roden, who became a Big Brother himself that year to then-8-year-old Ian.
“Ian’s father passed away before he was born, so his mom was eager to find a positive male role model for him,” he elaborates. “I still remember the first day we met, which involved learning of his love of pizza and laser tag.”
Their first outing was to an Arizona Diamondbacks game, where Roden quickly learned it was Ian’s first exposure to baseball. Over the next several years, Roden would also take Ian to his first hockey, football and basketball games, too, while sharing a life lesson or two along the way.
“And those lessons went both ways, especially when I became a dad myself,” explains Roden, whose daughter Marcee is now 15 years old.
Today, Ian is a 25-year-old ASU graduate working in engineering. Roden, still connected to Ian all these years later, notes there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of kids like Ian just waiting for a Big Brother right now, especially in Phoenix.
“Men are in specific need right now over at Big Brothers, as they were back when I first got connected,” he says. “Yes, it is a time commitment, but one well worth it.”
To learn about how to become a Big Brother (or Sister), visit www.bbbsaz.org. To apply for a 2018 Subway Kids & Sports grant, visit www.subwaykidsandsportsaz.com.