I have attended a lot of conferences over the years and have always felt driven to go to as many sessions as possible, to gather information and knowledge to bring back to my colleagues at the Maine Community Foundation. This time around was no different: I set out to get the latest on National Standards, to explore issues related to endowed philanthropy, to learn how community foundations and United Ways can do more together.
I always looked at the special off-site sessions as a kind of luxury—who could afford to take an afternoon to head off, guilt-free, on a road trip? I decided I could, and I came up with a rationale: Our community foundation was starting to develop a stronger focus on basic needs, so visiting the D.C. Central Kitchen would help educate me as to the work being done to address hunger.
After being guided onto a bus by the dynamic Eliana Briceno, about 20 of us headed down Connecticut Avenue for the kitchen. I took in the sights, which included a young woman standing in the median at one intersection with a cardboard sign: “Homeless not Hopeless—Broke but not Broken”—foreshadowing, I thought, of the visit ahead.
The group was met at the kitchen by Mike Curtin, CEO, who gave a little history, referencing the kitchen’s founder “crazy Robert,” aka Robert Eggers (who wrote about the organization in his book Begging for Change). He described the “righteous circle” the nonprofit supports: building workforce through a cooking school, getting “returning citizens” back on their feet, rescuing food. “Elevate” was the operational word and “moving the ball forward” was his mantra.
Curtin turned over the presentation to Jessica Towers, volunteer coordinator at the kitchen, who shared her traumatic life story, which included multiple felony convictions, addiction, abuse—you name it, she had been through it. Her story of perseverance and redemption, with the help of the staff at the kitchen, was inspiring.
The kitchen itself is a busy place: vegetable chopping, cooks in training, baking, etc. Its original motto was posted on the wall: “As you would cook for your family.” The staff seemed like a family—a well-oiled unit of individuals all bent on making food.
After a tour of the kitchen, we headed to the nearby Hyatt to hear from a panel of five leaders in work force development in the greater D.C. area. Moderated by Bruce McNamer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for the National Capitol Region, these committed individuals walked us through their work—the successes, the challenges, the obstacles. We learned about the suburbanization of poverty, green collar jobs, career pathways, and the remarkable array of innovative programs and strategies set up to support an essentially unstable population.
As they spoke I noted a mix of hope and pride, despair and dark humor. It seems to me such expressions have been recurring sentiments during the entire conference: identity, purpose and place approached from multiple perspectives.
Needless to say, I vowed to attend more of these sessions in the future, for nothing enlightens – and elevates – like the honesty of these encounters.