Tony Vinson passed some of his final hours at the Sterling Correctional Facility last winter helping to decorate the walls of the maximum-security prison for Christmas. He sat with a group of inmates cutting out construction-paper snowflakes, listening to them talk as he tried to tune out the chatter in his head.
At 37, he had spent more time in prison than out during his adult life. As he got ready to be released for the third time, he wanted this time to be forever. “I was ready. I was done. I was tired,” he said. But also: “I did not know if I was going to be strong enough.”
A week later, he walked out of the gates of the Colorado prison into a new year and a new life. He flew to the District to live with an aunt. His plan was to work in a restaurant and one day open his own.
To get started, he enrolled in a 14-week culinary training program at D.C. Central Kitchen. He was so successful in it, and in a restaurant job that followed, that last summer managers at the nonprofit organization made Vinson a surprising offer: to become the kitchen’s recruiter.
That’s how, on a recent cold December morning — just one year later — he came to be standing in front of a group of former convicts and other people who were scared and stuck in their own ways.
“Our goal is to change your life in every aspect,” he told them. He knew it could work, he told them. It was happening to him.
D.C. Central Kitchen has been training some of the hardest-to-employ residents of the Washington region for more than two decades, including the homeless, recovering drug addicts, or those with mental-health troubles or felony convictions.
Michael F. Curtin Jr., the chief executive of D.C. Central Kitchen, said the anti-hunger organization aims to change the way people think about those who have been incarcerated or otherwise marginalized.
“Food is the vehicle we use to get people to the table for that discussion, but food itself is not going to end hunger,” he said. “We need to find folks like Tony and give them opportunities for employment, so they can reach back and bring others along. Then we can get to a place where we can break the cycle of poverty.”
For those who finish the program, the recidivism rate is just 6 percent after two years, compared with a national average of 68 percent, according the organization.
Vinson applied to the program somewhat reluctantly. He was not sure how it could help him.
He started working in a kitchen as a teenager frying chicken at KFC. For many years, his cooking was a cover for selling drugs. He managed a kitchen at a Country Buffet. Later, in prison, he worked his way up to head cook.
When he joined a class of men that D.C. Central Kitchen runs at the Central Union Mission homeless shelter, he was a leader from the start, acting as a sous chef for the instructors.
The program teaches cooking skills, also job and life skills, and helps people to recognize what is getting in the way of their success.
For many, obstacles stem from past traumas. Each day begins with a group-therapy session, and people have a chance to tell their life stories.
Vinson’s story begins when he was 7 years old and his mother left him and his brother in foster care to be with a man who did not want the children. By 13, he went to juvenile detention after assaulting someone. Two years later, he was released to an uncle, who was a drug dealer. He spent his adolescence using and selling drugs.
He landed in prison by the time he was 20. Fifteen years later he had six felony convictions. He also had a daughter but doesn’t know whether he will ever have another chance to help raise her. “That’s the hardest part,” he said.
Seven of the 10 members of Vinson’s group were felons. They all cried in that class, he said, as they told their stories.
“That’s what I needed to do to move forward,” Vinson said.
After graduation, he got a job at a high-volume restaurant downtown, and his first major foray into fine dining. He was doing well, and when he got an offer from D.C. Central Kitchen, he did not accept it right away.
He was confident in the kitchen, but this terrified him. “I never had an office or held a business card,” he said. “All I could see was that this was a 9-to-5. I was going to be punching a clock. I was going to be sending emails.”
It took a while to see what the job really meant: helping other people get to a better place. “I wanted to do that,” he said.
Six months in, he does have a small office and a stack of emails in his inbox. He also has deadlines and quotas and classes to fill. There are voice messages waiting on his phone, and, frequently, people stopping in to see him, seeking information about the program or to interview.
Kim Martin, his aunt, said Vinson’s progress over the past year has been “meteoric.”
“I am so, so proud,” said Martin, the principal of Washington’s Woodrow Wilson High School.
She teeters between feeling “joy” and being “really angry” after years of heartache and failed attempts to help her nephew.
“I always told him, since he was 5 and I was 10, that I was jealous of his charisma and his personality. He is smart, and I always knew he could be great,” she said.
Now Vinson is the one trying to help others.
He goes to homeless shelters and halfway houses. He hands out fliers on sidewalks, and after every contact, he feels optimistic until the person doesn’t show up or call after promising to do so.
The next training program starts Jan. 9. Vinson has 25 spots to fill.
As the day nears, a selection committee gathered last week to go through applications. Vinson took a stack of 15 manila envelopes to the meeting.
Each applicant has to pass a random drug test and go through a three-day tryout with a chef.
His colleagues who have been through the process repeatedly were looking for signs that an applicant can make it through to the end and then succeed in a job. Someone, like Vinson, who’s ready. And as Vinson went through the folders, the “maybe” and “no” piles were growing as quickly as the “yes” pile.
If it were up to Vinson, they would all be in the class.
“I want to save everyone,” he said.