How Jessica Towers went from using drugs to serving second chances.
Most first-time employees at D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK) remind Jessica Towers of herself. It wasn't so long ago that she stood in their shoes, she'll say when they step into her office. They often don't believe her.
Sometimes Jessica can't fathom it, either. When she first joined DCCK—a nonprofit community kitchen and training program—in April 2012, her home address was a sober-living house in Arlington, Va., not far from where she was raised.
"I didn't have many goals growing up," admits Jessica, now in her late 30s. "Having a normal life—a decent job, a car, a place of my own—was something I always wanted. But because of the mistakes I made, I never thought that was going to happen for me."
Like three-quarters of women behind bars, Jessica dealt with substance abuse. It was a challenging season for her family to weather. Her parents, who have lived stably in the same house since the '60s, watched their daughter rotate through jails, drug treatment, and mental health hospitals. But these days, Jessica says, "They really don't worry about me anymore."
D.C. CENTRAL KITCHEN OFFERS SECOND CHANCES
Jessica's longest stint behind bars lasted one year, and she earned her GED while incarcerated. A probation officer referred her to DCCK for community service hours upon release from long-term drug treatment. DCCK strives to alleviate hunger and offer second chances to people coming out of situations like incarceration and homelessness. Soon Jessica enrolled in the culinary training program. It would be "the first kind of school" she had ever graduated from.
"Coming here helped my new path to really 'click,'" Jessica explains from her office desk.
But the new path wasn't a smooth one, as is often the case for our returning citizens, who face more than 44,000 documented legal restrictions tied to their criminal record. Approximately 70 million American adults confront these obstacles daily, on top of widespread social stigma, even after they have paid their debt to society.
After leaving prison, Jessica lost many job prospects after failed background checks. Success seemed even more out of reach the first time she applied for her own apartment. Until then, she'd never rented on her own without assistance. She was excited for her new chapter, but it came with challenges.
"The lady told me after I did my paperwork that my credit was so bad nobody should rent anything to me—and it didn't help that I had a record," Jessica says.
FINDING A NICHE
Fortunately, D.C. Central Kitchen employees had a good reputation; several were already residing in that apartment complex.
"She said she would take a chance on me," Jessica adds. "Almost six years later, I'm still living in the same apartment."
After graduating DCCK, Jessica was one of the first people hired from her class. She found work as a line cook at a drug treatment center. "Go figure," she laughs.
From there, she explored the culinary industry. She had found her confidence; now she had to find her niche. Jessica eventually wanted to return to DCCK, but no opportunities panned out at first. Then she got a call about a volunteer receptionist position at DCCK and jumped to take it. Two months later, DCCK hired her full-time.
"Regardless of what changes you may be able to voice that you've made, you'll still have doors slammed in your face," shares Jessica. "There are job search opportunities, but there isn't always a real, solid follow-up when you're in treatment. It's like checking a box—you do this many interviews and fill out this many applications. Then suddenly, 'Your time is up at treatment, and it's time to go! Best of luck!' ... At D.C. Central Kitchen, I found that I was among folks that had connections and relationships with people who would give me another chance."
"I never thought I would be in a situation where somebody was calling me about a job offer," Jessica adds, beaming. "Somebody saw something in me that I definitely didn't see in myself."
SAVORING SECOND CHANCES
Since joining DCCK seven years ago, Jessica has earned several promotions. In 2018, she became the volunteer engagement specialist, helping manage an army of 16,000 volunteers. She is salaried, has full medical and dental coverage, saves for retirement, and enjoys paid vacation and sick time allowances.
This year, Jessica is slated to complete the last two classes of her human resources certificate at Northern Virginia Community College. It's been a long journey of night classes and rush-hour traffic, but she wouldn't trade it for anything.
The most fulfilling part, she shares, is connecting with new students at DCCK. "I'm in a position where I can help facilitate that next career step for them," she says. "I'm serving people who were once in the situation that I was in."
Jessica still lives on her own—"No kids. Just cats," she chuckles—but she's hardly lonely. Many relatives still live in the area, and she says her DCCK crew is like family. Even when she's off the clock, Jessica loves to cook. She's big on steak and seafood and dinner parties with neighbors. She even bought new furniture for the first time. Good things, she says, that were well worth the wait.
She's thankful her family was patient along the way, too.
"I remember my dad just totally losing it and crying at my graduation. He said something like, 'I knew that one day you were going to get it. I didn't know you were going to do this well.' They were over the moon proud of me."
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