By Jessica Towers, Culinary Graduate & Human Resources Assistant, DC Central Kitchen
Inside DC Central Kitchen, some amazing things happen. But the outside doesn't look like much. Our headquarters is in the basement of one of America's biggest homeless shelters. By the time most people walk down the dark hallway to find DCCK's front desk, they're usually pretty nervous. Some are volunteers who want to help us prepare 5,000 meals a day. Others are men and women who are looking for a job and a second chance through the Kitchen's Culinary Job Training program.
My name is Jessica, and I sit at that front desk every day. I love seeing the volunteers and our hardworking staff walk in. But the people I'm most excited to meet are the folks who need our help changing their lives and finding good jobs. That's because, almost two years ago, I was one of those people who needed a fresh start.
Most of our applicants come to us through word of mouth. Some are sent by parole offices and lawyers, who don't really tell them where they are going or what they will find. Others are more informed, though. Those tend to be the people in the shelters and other organizations we work with, or have had family and friends go through the program. I make sure everyone gets our fourteen-page application. Part of the point of this packet is to provide us with all the information we need to know if someone's ready for the program. But it's also meant to help people get their thinking right. If you can't do the little things we expect to get into the program, you won't succeed once you're in it. Part of my job is to show these students what our expectations are.
Once each class starts, I see each student each morning, through the highs and lows of the program. Some days, they seem comfortable or even cocky. Other days, they're stressed out and afraid of failing. But when they're sitting there on graduation day four months later, I think back on where they were when they filled out their application. They're feeling confident. They believe in themselves. They're ready to get out there and work. The process works.
I know that process well. In 2011, when I came through, I was pretty much broken. I was thirty years old. I'd had a lot of jobs, but nothing that amounted to anything. No skills, no licenses, no certifications. What I did have were a bunch of felony convictions. I was fired from everywhere I'd worked because of my drug addiction and the bad choices it led me to make. Finally, a judge sentenced me to community service, which I ended up doing at a place called DC Central Kitchen.
I had spent time at other nonprofits when I was in treatment for my addiction, but the Kitchen was different. The feel of the place, the energy, gave me this overwhelming feeling that this was where I wanted to be. They treated me like family from the moment I walked in. The staff took me under their wings, and convinced me to apply for the Culinary Job Training program. They saw something in me, and even pulled some strings so I could finish my hours in time before the next fourteen week class started.
Nothing in the program came easy, but the job search period was the hardest for me. I had applied for lots of jobs in my life, but my record always got in the way. People were afraid I was going to steal from them. DC Central Kitchen told me my record wasn't who I was. They said we were 'kicking the stigma.' I knew they worked with employers that were open to second, and fourth, and fifth chances. The process taught me to believe in myself again. Finally.
After graduation, I worked in two different restaurants, but really wanted to come back home to DC Central Kitchen. I applied for every job that opened up, even ones that had nothing to do with cooking. Finally, one of my old teachers from the Kitchen called me. She was so excited that there was an opening at the front desk. I immediately resigned from where I was working, and came "Home" to the kitchen.
Now 10 months later, I've been promoted and am the Human Resources Assistant with a lot of different responsibilities. My friends think I'm crazy, but I love coming down to Second and D Street each day. Looking back at where I've been and where I come from, I could have never imagined myself working in Human Resources - unless I was about to get fired from it.
Now, after all my family has been through because of me, my parents don't have to worry about me being on the streets at night. They're so thankful for DC Central Kitchen, knowing I'm happy, I'm safe, and I'm on the right track. I'm thankful too.
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.