Mike Kriwiel shakes his head at his earliest memories of the fledgling social service company he launched with his brother-in-law, Daniel Thompson, during the summer of 1994.
Together Kids Can was designed to provide job readiness training to juvenile offenders in Butler County. Approximately 40 youths were among the first participants.
"It was a time when it was legal for kids to smoke and we gave them smoke breaks," Kriwiel said. "But there were times we'd go out there after the breaks and smell pot.
"It was really not done very well. Kids were paying off restitution and things like that, and we felt like we made some impact. Social workers loved it, families loved it, and everybody was saying how great it was. But we thought, 'We can do better than this.' "
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Today, Kriwiel is the president and CEO of Pyxis Inc., the latest evolution of Together Kids Can. With headquarters in downtown Wichita, the company works with local and state agencies to offer community and employment services to at-risk populations of all ages. Thompson, who no longer works for the company, expanded its services into North Carolina and Virginia when he relocated to the East Coast years ago.
Kriwiel coached and taught at Circle High School during the early 1990s and had an opportunity to work with Social and Rehabilitation Services to cultivate independent living skills in youth. While working on the model for Together Kids Can, Kriwiel learned that his coaching and teaching contracts would not be renewed.
The transition to a new career was eye-opening.
"Until I got into social services, I didn't even realize there were a lot of kids out there with some of the challenges that they have," Kriwiel said. "We walk into some of the homes that we serve and there's a lot of poverty.
"They have to make tough decisions. They need a job, but they also need to take care of their kids, they need to eat, they need to go to school. They have a lot of issues and they need support."
The company's primary focus in its early years was placing groups of three to five youths with an adult mentor and having them work for business partners in the community. That model remains in place, and Kriwiel said about 25 businesses have partnered with Pyxis.
"If kids go to work and have some expectations placed on them and have somebody working with them on a fairly intimate basis and getting to know them, many times they respond," Kriwiel said. "We have seen some kids turn the corner and do some really good things."
Pyxis serves more than 1,200 participants each year. In addition to youth programs, services are offered for people with mental or physical disabilities, and those on welfare.
The company has international accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. Another source of pride for Kriwiel is a People First initiative the company adopted last year that focuses on the importance of relationship-building among Pyxis' staff and those the company serves.
"So often the folks we serve have never been treated with much importance or given much value, and they are used to it," Kriwiel said. "It's difficult to rise to their level of ability if they don't have that confidence.
"We feel like we need to be the ones to build them up. But in order to do that, we need to be the kind of company that builds each other up."