Updates for Graduate Success Stories
At DC Central Kitchen, we teach our students that every job is a good job. An entry-level gig as a prep cook or dishwasher might not make you rich, but if you keep showing up each day with the right attitude and amount of effort, you can go places. 2013 DCCK culinary graduate Abby Wood took this teaching to heart, and it recently landed her a very special job—in the kitchen of the White House.
Soft-spoken, with soft features and short stature, Wood didn’t exude confidence in her early days at DCCK. At five years old, Wood was diagnosed with a learning disability, which she says led her to become shy and withdrawn. Time and again, she was told “You’re just not going to make it.”
At the behest of a loving aunt, Wood ventured down to DCCK, looking to turn a personal passion into a professional career. The busy kitchen, with clattering steel and chatty chefs, was intimidating at first, but instead of hearing from those around her that she wasn’t going to make it, her instructors repeatedly urged her to “trust the process.”
In the program’s first seven weeks, Wood was inundated with information, from exacting knife cuts to conversion measures to safe methods of handling food. With the help of her instructors, Wood made lengthy to-do lists. She started using her phone to help manage her time in ways that kept her from being distracted. She also learned how meticulous note-taking could help her learn better. And when DCCK’s hard-nosed self-empowerment classes or rigorous, month-long internship experience pushed her to the limits of her social comfort zone, Woods says her instructors “learned how to read me” and coaxed her out of her shell when she wanted to withdraw.
Upon graduation, Wood landed an enjoyable position at the Library of Congress, where she honed her skills in a diverse workplace. But Wood, so outwardly shy, had a bigger dream that she only whispered to her closest confidants at DCCK.
She had a dream of working in the White House. And through her first job, she developed a network, dutifully watched for openings, and trusted the process of achieving her dreams. The vetting process was long and frustrating, and she could have easily gotten distracted or dejected. But she didn’t.
In June of 2014, Abby Wood started work as a pastry assistant in the White House kitchens.
DC Central Kitchen taught me hyper-focus and a dedication to detail and learning new things, all skills that are beneficial in any environment, especially a challenging workplace like the White House.
- Abby Wood
“Don’t let other people deter you from your goals,” Wood adds with a bright smile.
Taking a break from his job as a cook at DC Central Kitchen, 54-year-old Marvin Bushrod considers his circumstances. “I have a job, a 401(k) plan, I just got a used car. I’m living the dream,” he says, sounding deeply grateful and a little stunned at his good fortune. “If it weren’t for DC Central Kitchen, I don’t know where I’d be.”
His dream has been a long time coming: On February 15, 1997, Marvin decided it was time to change; it was his 37th birthday, and he was almost halfway through a 30-year prison sentence.
Marvin Bushrod grew up in Washington, DC. He went to Meyer Elementary School, then Lincoln Jr. High in northwest DC. But he had what he describes as a troubled youth, and after seventh grade he left school barely able to read or write. Frank and self-possessed, Marvin offers little elaboration on his early years, except to add bluntly that he was an addict “with no morals, no principles” by the time he was sent to prison in December 1983.
He spent the first half of his sentence getting high and fighting, stuck in the same destructive cycle he’d lived in outside of prison. But on that day in February, he arrived at a decision that he’d been approaching for several years.
I was tired of the lifestyle, going through the negativity. I got to a point where I was just fed up.
He decided to stop getting high and do “only positive things.” He stopped fighting with other inmates, took classes and earned his GED, and spent a lot of time reading. And he got a job in the prison kitchen.
He turned his focus to helping others, counseling inmates to help them deal with the challenges of life in prison and volunteering to talk to school groups. He spent 16 years establishing new patterns of behavior and shifting the direction of his life.
In 2013 he approached the parole board, and was released from prison in Atwater, Calif., where he had served his sentence. On his release, he was given a bus ticket and instructions to report to a halfway house in Washington, DC. Out of prison for the first time in 30 years, he found his way to the bus station and began the journey across the country. Four days later, he was home.
Strange new world
When he got to DC, he found a world that was both familiar and alien. When he left in the early 1980s, the metro system was still new and payphones were ubiquitous. Now Marvin had to learn how to use the unfamiliar public transportation system and the payphones were all gone.
He noticed that electronics like cell phones and computers are everywhere now. Just walking down the street could be a bizarre experience: One day Marvin was on his way from the halfway house to a health center when he noticed a man walking alone, talking loudly to himself. A little farther on, he saw a young woman, also talking loudly, seemingly to no one. “I saw some crazy people out there today,” Marvin told the counselor when he returned to the house. Those folks weren’t crazy he was told; they were talking on their phones—with headsets.
Marvin still has some catching up to do. “I have to learn how to use a computer and I’ve barely figured out how to use my phone.”
While in the halfway house, he enrolled in Project Empowerment, a DC government training program to help former inmates and others facing serious challenges find jobs. It was there that he learned about DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Training Program.
A second chance
In a job market that is already challenging, ex-offenders face serious barriers to getting hired. Surveys show employers are reluctant to hire people with criminal backgrounds. At the same time, the link between unemployment among ex-offenders and recidivism is clear. In DC, nearly half of those released from prison are unemployed, according to the Council for Court Excellence. Without a job and the independence and self-esteem employment provides, their chances of ending up back in prison are a lot higher, and the costs—to themselves, their families, communities, and the city—pile up.
DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Training Program interrupts this negative cycle by offering a second chance to those who really want one. Applicants must meet certain criteria to be enrolled: They must be unemployed or underemployed, yet they need to have stable housing and a high school diploma or GED; they must be drug-free for at least 120 days and have the physical ability and stamina to work in a busy kitchen setting.
And they must have an interest in food service as a career. With significant kitchen experience already under his belt, Marvin applied to the 14-week program, which provides culinary arts training, as well as life skills training, and job placement assistance.
The program’s goal is “to prepare unemployed, underemployed, previously incarcerated, and homeless adults for careers in food service industry.” Students learn how to cook and graduate with a food-hander’s license. They also gain job-search skills—using a computer, writing a resume, conducting an interview—and habits of self-discipline they need to hold onto their jobs and take control of their lives.
The hardest part: self-empowerment
The hardest part of the program was getting past Ron, the self-empowerment instructor. Every morning Ron would poke at me. I was stubborn. But by the fourth week, he got me to see what I needed to do. I hated Ron at first, but now we’re the best of friends.
Marvin says the self-empowerment training is like having a mirror held up to your face, forcing you to recognize your faults and weaknesses and take the steps to address them. Marianne Ali, the director of the Culinary Training Program, says most of the students have struggled with substance abuse, criminal backgrounds, homelessness, and other problems. The self-empowerment component helps them reflect on their past patterns of behavior and figure out what needs to change.
“It establishes a foundation not to go back to past behaviors, and helps them with self-efficacy. Many of them have a deep-rooted belief that they can’t succeed. Our work is about 20 percent culinary training and 80 percent nurturing a belief in themselves and reaffirming their sense of self-worth,” says Marianne.
During his years in prison, Marvin had already done a lot of work toward establishing new patterns. “It was clear as day that he was ready to do whatever was necessary,” says Marianne. Still, he lost focus at one point, and missed a couple days of training. When that happened, Marianne sat down and talked with him. When he was young and selling drugs on the street, did he ever take a day off, she asked? No, he hadn’t. She told him, that’s because nothing stopped, and he had to be out there every day. “You know you have the capability,” she said. “Now you have to apply that same energy and ingenuity to a legal profession.”
“That was a real eye-opener,” said Marvin. “I never missed another day.”
The Ron Swanson Award
When the training program came to a close, the students voted for their classmates to receive special awards—Most Valued Player Award, Most Improved Award, and Sunshine Award.
The recipient of one more award, the Ron Swanson Life Skills Award, goes to a student who has embraced the process of self-empowerment and taken the steps necessary to build a new life. Ron nominated Marvin to receive this award, and the program’s team agreed. Marvin says, “He could see I wanted to punch him sometimes, but I controlled myself. That’s why he selected me—because I showed self-control.”
But Marianne says Marvin’s determination to succeed was evident when he arrived at DC Central Kitchen. “Maybe it was easier for Marvin because he came with that motivation,” says Marianne.
“An amazing place”
The Culinary Training Program has helped around 90 percent of its graduates find jobs. In 2013, 86 percent of the program’s graduates kept their jobs for at least six months. Furthermore, the jobs they got offered an average starting wage of almost $10.50 per hour, more than $2 above the District’s minimum wage.
Marvin was hired by DC Central Kitchen to work as a cook. He is responsible for salads, but he says everyone helps out in all parts of the kitchen. It’s like working in the prison kitchen, in that both are big institutions preparing meals for thousands of people every day. But unlike prison, he says, at DC Central Kitchen the food is prepared with love.
If it weren’t for DC Central Kitchen, where would I be? Who would give a guy with my background, 54 years old, a job? There are people out there who have been looking for years for work, people with no criminal background, who can’t find a job.
He wonders where he and others would be without the Culinary Training Program, how many people would be back in jail or on drugs. In his class, 67 percent of the graduates were previously incarcerated. But they turned their lives around, and DC Central Kitchen gave them a second chance. The program follows up on graduates in the year following graduation, and offers services to help with housing, employment, or other issues.
“We definitely wouldn’t be as successful as we are. It’s like a godsend, the program saves so many lives.”
He hopes he’ll stay at DC Central Kitchen, maybe becoming production manager at some point.
“At DCCK you get to meet a lot of people. You meet volunteers from all over, they tell you their stories and you tell yours, and nobody judges. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing place.”
This story was written by Kristin Witting, a volunteer for DCCK.
Click here learn more about DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program.
Class 95′s Maya Moore first heard about DC Central Kitchen while she was incarcerated. She had just been released and was in a drug rehabilitation program when she met DCCK staffer Sarah Riley, who helped her apply to the Culinary Job Training Program. Unemployed since 2007 and having applied to hundreds of jobs with no luck, Maya came to us with the most important asset of any new culinary trainee: a commitment to changing her life.
Maya is now fully employed at Nando’s Peri Peri doing the kind of work she loves. She took full advantage of the program’s month-long internship and hadn’t even graduated yet when they decided to offer her a permanent position. She loves working at Nando’s, an established employment partner of DCCK that’s offered supportive, constructive internship environments to several DCCK students already this year.
It’s amazing and I’m very thankful. I’m optimistic about my future. I’m going to keep on succeeding.
Maya says she owes much of her success to the employment skills she learned in the program. In addition to obtaining their food handler’s licenses, the students participate in mock interviews that help boost their job search skills.
I had the best interview of my life because of what I learned in the program.
Maya said the most difficult component of the class was our unique and often difficult self-empowerment curriculum. Each day, our students step away from practicing their knife skills, and work on developing life skills instead. She says these challenging sessions forced her to look at herself honestly. She has one piece of advice for future students entering the program.
Follow the rules and do what you have to do. Everyone here is here to help. You can’t do anything but win by completing this program.
Maya’s plans for the future include attending culinary school and, one day, moving up to become a head chef. Once frustrated and dejected after a long and fruitless job search, Maya’s forged a new way forward by joining her own inner strength with DCCK’s rigorous curriculum and established network of supportive employers like Nando’s Peri Peri. We’re honored to call her one of our 1,300 culinary alumni.
Lawrence Garnett found hope through DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program, where he was able to transcend his past of incarceration and unemployment to find a stable career.
Lawrence graduated from Class 92 on July 12, 2013 and four months later he says that life couldn’t be better. He’s now working as a cook at Glen’s Garden Market, a locally sourced neighborhood grocery store and café near Dupont Circle where he can be found roasting potatoes and chickens, curing meats, and keeping the deli well stocked.
Voted the Most Valuable Player by his classmates, Lawrence has a supremely positive attitude and the enthusiasm about his work to match it. You can tell that he takes a lot of pride in what he does. Lawrence says that every day at Glen’s he hears coworkers and customers talk about how good his chicken and potatoes taste. He says that everything he does comes from his heart, so he really enjoys seeing customers getting excited about his food.
Though his time in the classroom may be over, Lawrence continues to learn new things on the job all the time. Most recently, he learned how to cure, cook and trim bison tongue, one of the many new products he’s been working with. Transferring his skills from the classroom environment to his employer’s kitchen has been a breeze for Lawrence. He says that he knew he came to the job with all the training he needed when his chef very quickly had him working weekends at Glen’s all by himself.
I’ve worked very hard to get to this new place in life and I just love it; things couldn’t be better.
Your generosity helps make our mission a reality. Lawrence is one of more than 1,200 DC Central Kitchen graduates who have overcome personal challenges and found real careers. We’re honored by your support. This holiday season, we hope you will choose to invest in our mission once more. Make a contribution today to support our work.
Richard McCray is advancing quickly in his new job managing The Burger Joint in Clarendon, Virginia. He owes all of his success to graduating from DC Central Kitchen’s first Arlington Culinary Job Training class four years ago.
McCray first heard about DC Central Kitchen upon being released from his seven year prison sentence in 2009. With nowhere else to go, he lived at a shelter, where extending one’s stay was contingent on finding employment. Desperate for any sort of employment, he decided to give the DCCK program a shot. While not particularly keen on cooking, something told McCray that he should take this opportunity. He enrolled in our program.
He stuck out the long hours of the program and graduated in November 2009. He says he benefited most from the life skills component of the course. For example, he learned how to deal with negativity from coworkers in a productive manner. “Kitchens have a lot of emotions and it can be frustrating. Growing up, my way of dealing with someone who was wrong was to punch him and make him see the right way. DCCK showed me there was another way,” said McCray.
So how does McCray deal with the stressful demands of the kitchen? “I try to have a laugh every day,” McCray replies. Richard McCray is enjoying his path to success, and we can’t wait to watch him grow.
Will Farrell is one of DC Central Kitchen’s friendliest faces. A graduate of DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training Program, Will now works for DCCK as a culinary lead. He’s been doing great things leading meal production and working with volunteers. Now he’s using his knowledge to expand DCCK’s baking capacities.
While incarcerated, Will became a certified baker through the Department of Labor, and through this program, he realized how much he enjoyed baking and how good he was at it.
As a vegetarian, baking also suits him better than cooking. He hopes to use the hours of baking instruction he received in jail toward a degree in baking and the pastry arts.
For now, Will is using his baking knowledge to bake quick breads for healthy snacks in DC Public Schools. He has also been preparing biscuits and muffins for DCCK’s catering branch, and hopes to soon provide even more offerings. He has been sharing his knowledge about baking with other DCCK chefs, and we have been expanding our baking equipment in the kitchen with recent purchases including a mixer and baking pans. Will is certainly helping us up the ante of our baking in the Kitchen, and we look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us!