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June 6, 2012 / HandsOnCorps

Feeding the Soul of the City, One Smile At a Time

I work at DC Central Kitchen as an AmeriCorps Vista with one of the DCCK core programs known as the Culinary Job Training Program. Four times each year, 25 men and women coming from unemployment, poverty, incarceration, and/or overcoming addictions are enrolled in a 14 week culinary training program. What many of them do not realize is that it is not your ordinary culinary program. Sure, we teach them how to cook, and assist them in finding a job as a line cook or prep cook in the culinary industry; but intertwined between the culinary lessons and the mock interviews is the internal transformation of their being. One of the central themes to the culinary job training program (CJT) is transition. Most students find themselves in our program because they are ready to transition out of their current situation in life. Some may be going through several transitions simultaneously. We, the CJT team of instructors, coordinators, and Vista, aid our students in their transitions from the life they have been living to the one they want to live.

I would illustrate my role with DC Central Kitchen’s CJT program as “a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of everything.” When I started last November I jumped in and haven’t come up for air yet, which is how I like it, if you can believe it! I have waited tables since I was 18, and one aspect of the job I absolutely loved was the fast paced work-til-you-drop nature of the restaurant business. If I don’t have something to work on, I feel like there is a problem and get anxious. Luckily for me, there is never a dull moment in my Vista position. Whether I am out and about scouting restaurants for potential internship sites, talking at a local shelter about why the CJT program is an amazing program to apply for, or counseling a student in a matter concerning their housing, family life, record expungement, etc…, there is always work to be done. My coworkers have warned me that “there will always be more”, to which I happily reply with a “bring it!” and a big smile. When you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.

Once people find out where I work and a bit of what I do, they ask a lot of questions. I find myself using the ripple metaphor a lot, but only because it rings so true. Each day when I walk into the kitchen, I say good morning to at least 5 people, sometimes 10! Most of them have gone through the job training program and now work at the kitchen. They are returned citizens, recovering addicts, formerly homeless, and my friends and coworkers. It makes my morning that much easier when I remember that me saying good morning means a whole lot to some people. I better not forget, or sometimes they’ll come looking for me! Every smile I give out takes on the effect of a ripple, helping the cooks smile a little more, and then the volunteers have a good day in the kitchen, and they go home and talk about how much fun they had at the kitchen and their friends and coworkers volunteer, and we feed more people and the cycle continues. All stemming from one smile and ‘good morning’. That’s really the essence of the kitchen. We are feeding the soul of the city- one meal, one culinary graduate, and one smile at a time. As one graduate said during graduation, “This is the first time in my life I have actually came up and done something for myself. I am a changed person, in this little bit of time. My family, they love me. But they welcome me now. And all blessings are coming to me that I cannot believe. People, places, things. For me.” The idea that I have even a small positive part to play in the bigger scope of someone’s life means more to me than I could ever express. I have AmeriCorps to thank for this incredible opportunity.

Sarah Riley

HandsOn Corps VISTA: DC Central Kitchen

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