01/25/2013 09:55 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

The Power of Tough Love

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

Twenty-five years ago, D.C. Central Kitchen started with the idea that just handing out food would never end hunger. Hunger is a symptom of a bigger problem: poverty. That's why we started training the men and women who depended on soup kitchens and food pantries in the culinary arts, so they could get out of the soup line and onto the right track.

Over the years, we learned that being out of work was itself usually a symptom of other, more destructive problems. Before we can help people find decent jobs, we use a 'tough love' approach to change the way they see the world and see themselves. Depending on the day, sometimes we have to lean more to the 'tough' side of things than the loving one.

We know that the people who make their way down the alley and into the basement of this massive homeless shelter aren't here because their lives have been hunky dory. If you're here, something is seriously wrong. Our students, in short, are broken. When they first enroll, they're focused on survival. Whether they're coming from a shelter, the streets, or prison, they've developed ways of getting by that, in some sense, work -- after all, they're still breathing.

They aren't thinking straight, though. They know how to lie, how to look 'hard,' how to hide weakness and never admit failure. But they don't know how to succeed or how to grow. The mentalities that help someone survive when they're locked up, hooked on drugs, or living under a bridge won't work in the workplace, so we can't let them persist here in our kitchen.

Part of getting them to let go of those old mentalities means showing our students a lot of love. Our staff understands where these trainees our coming from. Our training team is stacked with recovering addicts, our kitchen staffed by dozens of graduates of our program who have changed their lives. Those graduates are now smiling examples of how our model can work and mentors to each incoming class. When we can, we vigorously support our students and look for creative ways to help them overcome the serious challenges they're up against.

But don't think that just because we're loving, we're naïve. You can't play a player. Too many of us at DCCK, including me, have spent too many years lying, looking hard, hiding weakness, and denying failure to not pick up on the self-destructive tendencies of our students. We set high expectations, but design strategies that help our students actually achieve them and see their own progress along the way.

Lots of job training programs that help low-income folks get a fresh start say they offer 'life skills.' Our students have plenty of skills that have kept them alive. What they don't have are the tools to live better. Each day, our students enter a private classroom for a 90-minute 'Self-Empowerment Session,' led by an experienced facilitator. We take on tough topics from setting goals and managing expectations to anger management and coping with disappointment. These may sound like simple skills, but they're ones that lots of functioning, employed people take for granted. Our trainees need to discover them for the first time before they ever land their first paycheck.

I've seen hundreds of trainees demonstrate incredible changes in our crowded basement kitchen. I want to be clear, though. We fix meals here, not people. D.C. Central Kitchen offers a supportive environment, committed coaches, intense instruction, and a strong network of employers who know and respect our program. With those supports and a lot of tough love, even the hardest cases can become contributing, gainfully employed citizens. The deciding factor lies within each student. Are they tough enough to take our teaching? Can they love themselves enough to let themselves succeed?

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.