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DC kitchen puts ex-convicts on path to White House Easter Egg Roll

By Sandra Endo, CNN
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Ex-cons pitch in for Easter Egg Roll
  • Graduates of DC Central Kitchen job training program prep eggs for White House Easter Egg Roll
  • "It makes me feel good that I can be a part of something of this magnitude," chef says
  • Kitchen provides training in foodservice industry to released convicts and the homeless
  • "This is a life-changing program. It's not just a culinary job training program," spokesman says

Washington (CNN) -- For years, Jeff Ragsdale was in and out of jail, high on drugs and alcohol, and homeless.

"I've had so many chances, but this time it's really working out. I'm a little more focused than I was in the past," he said.

This weekend, he was part of a team of chefs from DC Central Kitchen who are busy boiling 6,000 eggs for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.

After many failed attempts to get clean and hold a steady job, Ragsdale applied to DC Central Kitchen's Culinary Job Training program. He's one of hundreds of chefs who have graduated from the program, which is geared toward helping formerly incarcerated and homeless adults get back on their feet.

"It makes you feel good to know that you're a part of an organization that does so many good things for the community and to be recognized by the White House, you know it doesn't get much better than that. It makes me feel good that I can be a part of something of this magnitude."

This is third year that students and graduates of DC Central Kitchen's job training program have helped to prepare the White House Easter Egg Roll, which is hosted by President Obama and the first lady.

The kitchen serves about 5,000 meals a day, 365 days a year to those in need in the DC area. But the 16-week job training program has been at its core for nearly 20 years, spokesman Bryan MacNair said.

Graduates of the program, which boasted an 80% job placement rate in 2009, move on to work at restaurants, hotels and convention centers. The program equips students with culinary and sanitation skills, but "really, 40 or 50 percent are life skills," MacNair said.

"There's a camaraderie, a community of men and women working next to each other and really feeling that their lives are changing," he said "Men and women come here and leave as different people."

Dwain Arrington is another chef who is thriving in the program. It's the first job he has held after spending 12 years in prison for weapons possession. Here, he feels like people understand him, and he takes pride in their collective accomplishments.

"A lot of folks went through my similar situation and perhaps worse. They told me their stories and how they overcame their adversity. I just stuck with it. They saw something in me that I didn't see. They offered me the position and I stuck with it, grew like a family, things worked out good," he said.

Ragsdale says the best feeling for him is to give back to a community he took so much from in troubled times.

"This organization is different because it works on giving back to the community, and it largely works with those of us who in the past have taken so much from the community, so just to be able to give back is a blessing."

CNN's Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.