02/20/2013 08:55 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

The Power of Partnerships

By Marianne Ali, Director of Culinary Job Training, D.C. Central Kitchen

Here at DC Central Kitchen, we train and find employment for men and women who come to us financially broke and emotionally broken. Training at-risk adults for culinary careers isn't easy work, and we're not perfect. In fact, we rely on dozens of partner agencies across the District of Columbia to support the progress of each individual client. And in a time when most nonprofits are desperately fighting one another for limited funding, we're pioneering new forms of powerful partnerships.

Our collaborations start with the transitional homes, shelters, and rehabilitation programs that house people who are hungry for a second chance. Many have histories of drug use or criminal behaviors. Some are victims of domestic abuse or have had serious health issues that drove them to financial ruin. And others have simply fallen out of the workforce and never found a way back in. Whatever their histories, our partner agencies provide what they need in the present, whether it's counseling, a warm place to stay, childcare, or substance abuse recovery. When a client has begun to get her bearings, it's time to think about her future. That's when public and nonprofit groups from across Washington, DC send prospective students to our kitchen, here in the basement of America's largest homeless shelter. We have a reputation for taking on tough cases, and our partners, strapped for time and resources, are glad to know their clients are in good hands while they turn their attention to the next round of neighbors in need.

Some of our strongest partners are in the corrections community. The idea of an out-of-work ex-offender may not evoke much sympathy for some, but at DC Central Kitchen, we have found that men and women returning to this city after stays in prison prove to be some of our best students. If we want our justice system to be one of corrections, rather than simple punishment, we have to give our returning citizens a chance to rebuild their lives in ways that are both fair to them and responsible to our community's need for safety and order. Given the extremely high costs of incarceration, writing off everyone with a record is bad business for taxpayers. At DCCK, we work closely with parole officers to identify those who might succeed in our tough, loving environment.

As you might imagine, not everyone who shows interest in our program pans out. That's why we have developed a new 'hybrid program' for prospective students who are not quite ready for our intensive 14 week course in culinary arts, or those who turn out to struggle after a few weeks in our kitchen. For people who qualify for the hybrid program, we offer three days per week of meaningful community service helping to prepare 5,000 daily meals for hungry and homeless residents of our city. While engaged in the fast-paced production of our kitchen, they practice their knife skills and acclimate themselves to a professional work environment. And on the days they're not in our kitchen, each hybrid trainee has a set schedule of meetings to attend and services to enlist that our staff designs in conjunction with their case managers. Together, we connect these individual with the support services they need to prepare for the next step in their personal and professional journeys.

And, as a culinary arts program, we rely on the contributions of restaurants, hotels, and food service institutions. Some area chefs visit us weekly to provide hands-on culinary tutorials while others host our students in their kitchens during their two-week-long professional internships. All told, we work with more than 75 partner culinary institutions across DC, many of whom respect our work enough to hire our graduates. Our industry credibility has helped our last five years' worth of graduates maintain a 90 percent job placement rate.

I like to think that the work DCCK does is special. But we could not recruit, support, or successfully find jobs for our clients without these foundational partnerships. Sometimes, the answers to big problems like unemployment or hunger don't lie in starting new nonprofits or convening another blue-ribbon panel. Sometimes, those answers have multiple pieces, each one held by another group working on the front lines of the war on poverty. When you look to support an organization in your community with your money or volunteer hours, look for those that are implementing smart solutions while using creative partnerships with others to squeeze the greatest value from your contribution. When unemployment is high, we all suffer. So let's all work together to get our jobless neighbors working once more.

You can join us in shortening the line and empowering men and women to change their lives. Visit our Crowdrise page and make a contribution today. Your contribution helps us reach our goal of winning $150,000 from the Skoll Foundation. Tell your friends and spread the word.

Learn more about DC Central Kitchen. Visit our website at