By Michael Curtin
I have been incredibly lucky over the last nine and a half years to work with so many dedicated, compassionate and passionate individuals that make the magic happen at DC Central Kitchen every day. Because of their hard work, I often stand in rooms accepting awards on their behalf and on behalf of the hundreds of men and women who have faced and overcome hurdles and obstacles that I could never pretend to imagine, dedicated their lives to change, graduated from our training program and have gone on to lives of promise and self-sufficiency. I can honestly say, however, that the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce’s Elkin Humanitarian Award might mean more to me than any other.
Maureen and I were lucky enough to settle in Falls Church City 20 years ago and found an amazing community in which to raise our family. All three of our children have benefited from the fantastic school system that chamber tax dollars support and the oldest, Maeve, will be graduating shortly and heading off to college with an unbeatable foundation that I am sure the others will build as well.
I was also lucky enough to open a restaurant in the yet-to-be-dubbed Little City in 1998 and operate it for four-plus years. While I now refer to that period of time as my first experience in the nonprofit sector, it allowed me to be part of this community in a wide array of wonderful ways, including being actively involved in the Chamber. It was actually while I was at Broad Street that I became involved with DC Central Kitchen. It was very important to me that the restaurant be a part of this community, and I tried to be involved with as many Falls Church community organizations as I could.
I quickly realized, however, that I couldn’t possible do that and be involved with the many other area organizations that wanted to work with restaurants. So I decided to “adopt” two nonprofits outside of Falls Church to focus on. One was the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund and the other was DC Central Kitchen. I was drawn to what the Kitchen did, but never dreamed I would one day find my dream job working there in the basement of Washington’s largest homeless shelter.
What I ultimately found at DC Central Kitchen was a place where I could use all the experience I had gained from my time in the restaurant business, particularly the entrepreneurial drive that helped me open my restaurant here in the first place. The beauty was that I was now working with people who were literally changing their lives, and I was able to be part of that every day. Even more exciting was our opportunity to envision new lines of business that would create well-paying jobs for these individuals that put healthy product into the community that, in turn, generated more revenue for the Kitchen to engage in more training and offer more transformative services.
Perhaps most importantly, my time in the restaurant saw the beginning of many friendships that have lasted years including Bob Young, Phil Duncan, Barb Cram, Sally Cole, Steve Rogers, Nick Benton, Tom Gittens, Tom Clinton and two former recipients of the Chamber’s Humanitarian Award, Stacy Hennessey and Tori McKinney, to name just a few. There are also friends who, sadly, aren’t here but I think of often, like Dan McKeever and Jim Elkins.
While there were some wonderful times during my restaurant run in Falls Church, there were some not so good times; but those friends were always there, and they helped me get through all of them. I particularly remember Jim Elkins coming by the restaurant almost every Saturday afternoon after he left his shop up the road. It was usually mid-afternoon, and it was slow in the restaurant. Jim would come in, sit at his favorite table by the window and order a sandwich and iced tea with extra lemons. Although I don’t think we ever really talked about how hard things might have been, I believe he knew and wanted me to know.just so I would know that he was there if I needed someone to talk to. Mitch Albom had his Tuesdays with Morrie; I had my Saturdays with Jim.
I must admit that receiving a “humanitarian” award feels somewhat awkward. After all, as humans, shouldn’t we all be humanitarians? When I think about it, and when I think about Jim, I think that maybe being human is the easy part; the hard part is seeking, seeing, understanding and celebrating the humanness in others. Jim had that gift, and I am honored and humbled to try and carry on his legacy as I strive to live my life as he did.
Michael Curtin is the Chief Executive Officer of the DC Central Kitchen and The Campus Kitchens Project.