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For DC's downtrodden, the path to a second chance runs through a kitchen

Earl Pass receives a congratulatory handshake after graduating from DC Central Kitchen's culinary jobs training program. Pass spent 13 years in prison and credits the program for helping him move past a life of "death or incarceration"

Class 100  of the DC Central Kitchen's culinary job training program pose for a group photo with founder Robert Egger (center)

Marianne Ali, director of the culinary job training program at DC Central Kitchen hugs a graduate following Class 100's commencement ceremony Tuesday, July 10

Finding steady work in D.C. is hard enough. When you’re fresh out of prison, dealing with homelessness, suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, it’s near impossible. One non-profit in the District is doing something about that.
On a sweltering Friday in July, the inside of the Ronald Reagan Amphitheatre on Pennsylvania Ave. is awash in white and black chef caps. Men and women hustle busily back and forth, some stopping to chat or dole out hugs and daps when they see a familiar face. Today is graduation day for the 100th class of the DC Central Kitchen’s culinary jobs program, and for sixteen men and women it represents either the end of a dark chapter in their lives or the beginning, perhaps, of a brighter one.  

At DC Central Kitchen there is a mantra that pervades everything the group does: charity work is about more than making yourself feel good. It is a mantra that starts with its founder, Robert Egger, who went to volunteer at a soup kitchen one night 25 years ago and was struck by how little it did to actually address the underlying problems that lead to chronic hunger. It was raining and the volunteers were dry and comfortable inside the confines of the food truck while the people they served stood waiting in line as the storm poured down on them. Egger came to believe that charity of this sort seemed more about stroking the egos of the volunteers, an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for their do-goodery. He founded DC Central Kitchen in large part to provide an alternative to the kind of charity kitchens he saw that night.

"I was just so taken by that image. Here I was up in a warm truck, I was the one being served. [I thought] we can't do this," says Egger.

This is how the kitchen’s culinary job training program came to be. The primary mission of the program is to recruit men and women who have slipped through the cracks of society, training them to work in restaurants and at catering companies. The chronically incarcerated, homeless, people with histories of family dysfunction, substance abuse or mental health issues. All are considered worthy of a second chance, provided they are willing to work for it.

“I always wondered where the art of culinary came from,” said Earl Pass, one of the recent graduates, who lives in Southeast DC. “When I started the program I was like, ‘this is it. This is going to be your career.’”

Pass is an example of the kind of person the kitchen targets. Before he entered the job-training program, Pass was living in a halfway house in Hope Village. Initially, it was the prospect of several months of steady pay that caught his attention. As a convicted felon, employers were not exactly lining up to hire him. He recalls his days as a drug dealer and user in Maryland, where he was certain his life would lead to “either death or incarceration.”

In 2003, he was arrested and charged with abduction, robbery and a gun charge after he and an associate pulled a gun on another drug dealer and robbed him. His accomplice received a 45-year sentence, but before Pass went to trial his co-defendant slipped him and his lawyer a note.

“It said ‘Earl, I love you and there’s no sense in both of us going down for this. Take whatever [plea deal] your lawyer gives to you,’” said Pass, who spent 13 years in prison before gaining his release in January.
He said the judge told him during his sentencing that if he wanted to see who he was truly hurting with his actions, he should turn around and look behind him. Pass’ family was sitting in the front row. In a dining room next to the amphitheatre after graduating, Pass recalled how he felt at that moment. With his mother sitting beside him and listening quietly, he quickly broke down into tears.

“I never was a bad person. I just made a wrong decision. I didn’t realize the people that I hurt,” said Pass.

The 14-week program combines culinary job training and “empowerment sessions”, a form of social work and therapy which forces the graduates to be brutally honest with themselves and others about their problems.
 “The work [we do] is not feel-good work,” said Marianne Ali, the kitchen’s director of the culinary job training program.
“He played basketball, I played basketball. He wrote poetry, I wrote poetry. He shot dope, I wanted to do that.”

If Pass represents the kind of person that the kitchen recruits at the beginning of the program, Ali represents the platonic end result. During the graduation ceremony the kitchen shows the graduates a video detailing Ali’s life story. She’s been clean for 18 years, but before that admits to being trapped in the life on the streets, forever idolizing her heroin-addicted big brother.

“He played basketball, I played basketball. He wrote poetry, I wrote poetry. He shot dope, I wanted to do that,” said Ali.

Graduates of the program have leveraged their skills to land jobs cooking and even managing restaurants in the D.C. area.  Abby Wood, a graduate in 2013, was hired as a cook for the Executive Office Building at the White House. The program boasts heady numbers for graduates, claiming that last year 90 percent of them found work shortly after graduating, and 86 percent stayed at their jobs past six months. Erica Teti-Zilnaskas, communications director for the kitchen, says the organization hires as many graduates as they can, but that over the years they have developed a pipeline of local D.C. businesses and institutions that both support the charity with donations and agree to take on and hire their graduates.

Ali said the empowerment portion involves daily sessions before work, where students talk about life experiences and are assigned “homework”, usually writing out their thoughts and reflections on what brought them to their current circumstances and changes they could make in their lives. Beneath those worldly problems, Ali said, are issues of trauma, trust, fear and negative life experiences that usually leave a person in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and desperation.

“Self empowerment became a place of relief, but it was never pleasant,” said Rosita Musgrove, a graduate selected to speak during the ceremony. “It allowed everyone of us to face our darkest hours.”

Jackie Brown, a graduate in 2014, said things in her life took a downturn after a divorce in 2006. She lost both of her jobs in 2009 in the early days of the Great Recession and two years later was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She was evicted in 2013 and became homeless. She said she did her best to hide it from other people in her life and coped by “taking care of it through alcohol.” She would still dress up like she was going to work and had a home to sleep in, and not living out of her truck.

“I would look nice during the day but it was tearing me up inside,” says Brown.

Brown credits DC Central Kitchen with turning her life around. For her, the second week of the program was the toughest. She came from a family of chefs, though she ultimately ended up working in customer service. She came into the training program thinking she knew everything about cooking and might even teach a thing or two to the instructors.  After the first week, Brown was taken aback at how grueling the standards were for the classes and workload. Students are taught knife skills, prep work, get certified for sanitation and safety and learn to cook just about every sauce there is.

Members of her class met early in the mornings before work for the other half of the program: empowerment. Everyone comes into the empowerment sessions “wearing camouflage”, according to Brown.  The sessions “rip you apart” and tear down whatever walls you have. Members are forced to acknowledge what has been holding them back, whether by choice or circumstance. 
“Sometimes I just wanted to crash. I didn’t want to go back."

“Sometimes I just wanted to crash. I didn’t want to go back,” says Brown.

Adrian Gory, who graduated from the culinary training program and was hired on full-time in 2012, came to the Kitchen in a bad place as well. A drinker since his grandmother passed in 2006, Gory drifted from Los Angeles where he grew up, to New Orleans, Louisiana, Birmingham, Alabama and then finally D.C.  Though Gory says he did not have a history of incarceration, he has had a fluid living situation, staying with different friends and family members for short periods of time. Like Brown, he said he came into empowerment sessions  emfeeling judgmental but changed his view after realizing each student was struggling with his or her own demons.

“[The program] helped me learn to understand people as they are and take some time to think about things that others have been through,” Gory says.

Gory has three children who they live with their mother in Birmingham. Among his short term goals are paying off his remaining child support balance, building his credit back up and setting down a schedule for flying down south to see them regularly. Over the long term he wants to save enough to open up his own fried ribs restaurant.

The final portion of the program involves a paid internship outside the walls of the kitchen and in the working world.  The end goal for many will not be glamour or unalloyed success, but rather a steady job that will help them pay bills and stay off the street.

“We want them to know that success doesn’t mean having the perfect job, or the perfect environment with everything that you want,” Teti-Zilnaskas says.

Due to a reporting error, this article originally stated that DCCK's culinary job-training program includes paid work, when in reality participants are given a transportation stipend but not otherwise paid during the program. Elevation DC regrets the error.
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