12/13/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

What DC Central Kitchen Learned from a Newtown Mother

By Alexander Justice Moore
Director of Development, DC Central Kitchen

I'm lucky enough to work in a place held up by pillars of hope. Every day in DC Central Kitchen's basement headquarters, I see people overcoming homelessness, poverty, and past mistakes to build better lives for themselves and their families.

Last year, when Newtown became the site of a national tragedy, the hope we treasure here at DC Central Kitchen turned to helplessness. And as hard as it was to see the images of Sandy Hook on the news, down here in DC, the crisis seemed far away. What could we do?

A year later, the community of Newtown touched our hearts again. To commemorate the anniversary of the shooting, a group of children and parents decided to travel to Washington and lobby their leaders for change. But before they headed to Capitol Hill on December 12, they came to DC Central Kitchen. Five children and four parents yanked on less-than-flattering hairnets and plastic aprons, sidled up beside a dozen graduates of our Culinary Job Training program, and set about making 5,000 portions of beef stroganoff for our city's homeless shelters and nonprofits.

Once the kids were set up at our salad station, I had the chance to speak with one of their mothers, who had immigrated to the United States from Jordan. To hear her speak of sectarian violence in the Middle East, gun violence in America, and poverty in our nation's capital all in the same breath--assigning to them the same degree of senselessness--was humbling. "There is so much beauty here in the United States, so much wealth. America is a superpower. How can we not protect our people?" she asked.

These families didn't owe us a moment of their time. In fact, our society couldn't even hold up its end of the most basic of social contracts--providing children a safe place to learn and grow. But instead of turning away from that society, here they were, giving back.

Looking around at the DC Central Kitchen staffers playfully chatting up the Newtown kids, I realized that, as a community, we had done nothing to protect our culinary graduates when they were children. They grew up in violent, poverty-stricken neighborhoods. They attended failing, unsafe schools. Instead of rallying to their aid, our nation turned to a politics defined by division. As adults, these men and women had to start from scratch, learning how to trust others, believe in themselves, and be part of something positive.

Whether we're talking about why religious warfare persists or why the War on Poverty failed, the root cause is the same: the seductive, generalizing lies we whisper in our own minds. We reassure ourselves with these lies every time we recoil from someone of another race or religion. We tell ourselves that we deserve our own high standards of living because we worked hard--and that another person's poverty must be a result of their own failings. That's why I can't shake the words of that Newtown mother.

"Assemble," she urged. "Do not hate."

It is only when we separate ourselves from one another that those dangerous lies can take root. Stereotypes can't hold up when they're challenged by real human beings. That's why we have the 14,000 volunteers who visit us each year slice and dice alongside people who have been incarcerated, hooked on drugs, or addicted to life on the streets. But yesterday, we weren't the ones showing others what is possible when people come together. Yesterday, the people of Newtown taught us something, and our pillars of hope, shaken one year ago, stood a little straighter and a little stronger.