Debbie Banks, all photos Laura Hayes

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When Debbie Banks enrolled in DC Central Kitchen’s (DCCK) free Culinary Job Training (CJT) course in 2010 she was homeless. “I lost my job, lost my home, and walked the streets eating nothing but bagels. That’s why I don’t eat bagels now,” she says.

The 14-week intensive program that includes culinary instruction, job readiness training, and life skills development takes adults who face employment barriers because of histories of incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness, and trauma and prepares them for jobs in food service, including restaurants.

Upon graduating, Banks worked in several D.C. public schools that contract DCCK to provide school meals. She later found her way back to the organization’s headquarters at 425 2nd St. NW where she is now a cook. She works with volunteers to prepare 5,000 free meals a day that go out to more than 80 partner organizations.

But whenever she has the opportunity, Banks lends her ear to the current group of studentsthe 108th class. “I lift them up,” she says. “Everybody here has been through something. We’re family in here.”

Banks noticed that recent CJT classes have more resources than when she matriculated with the 80th class. “They’re giving them more opportunities, letting them learn more,” she says. “When I came in we were just learning the basics to get through. They’re getting different certificates that give them a better chance of being employed in the food game.”

She’s right. CJT students prepare to take managerial level food safety exams and are taught about common allergens. But perhaps the greatest step towards better equipping CJT graduates comes in the form of the CJT Café, which is approaching its one-year anniversary in July. It’s a fast-casual, free dining experience for DCCK volunteers run entirely by the current class of students. The cafe is open on Friday afternoons.

Daniela Hurtado

Culinary instructor Daniela Hurtado explains that the decision to launch the cafe to provide real-time training was the result of a survey of area restaurants. “Everyone wanted people very conscious about urgency and also knife skills,” she says. When the window opened at noon this past Friday, there was a line 40 people deep that snaked through the kitchen by 12:10 p.m. Dishes included grilled shrimp Caesar salad, clam chowder, pan-fried tilapia with Puerto Rican sauce, and a three-cheese omelet.

Roderick Bryant

The current class has 19 students who hustled to make meal service happen. One of them was Roderick Bryant, a returning citizen who was recently incarcerated at a federal prison in Virginia. “I came home with culinary skills already, 30 odd years. But what I didn’t come home with were skills for readjusting to society,” he says. “I could have come home and gotten a job but I would have been settling. I thought: I want to change my life.” The 55-year-old sought structure. “I need the life skills. I need to be around people striving to get somewhere in life today.”

His classmate Elhadji Thior, for example, has a goal of returning to his native Senegal where he wants to open a restaurant and be the executive chef. Though he’s had experience cooking in a Turkish restaurant in Libya, Thior says he came to DCCK to learn about American ingredients and the American cooking system. “I realized that there are a lot of ingredients, so there’s a lot to learn because this is what I want for my career,” Thior says.

Elhadji Thior

Banks has found a real niche for herself as a mentor at DCCK, and encourages others to consider the program given that 90 percent of graduates find permanent work. “This company gave me things I’ve never had before,” she says. “I never had insurance, a 401K, I never even had a bank account.” Banks even convinced her nephew to apply, and while he was accepted into the program, diabetes claimed his life before he could graduate.

If you want to have another chance at life the way you’re supposed to live in this world, give yourself a chance,” Banks says. “It’s going to be hard, nothing comes easy. You have to stand your ground and claim it.”

DC Central Kitchen, 425 2nd St. NW # 2; dccentralkitchen.org