The crackle in her voice is indisputable. Thinking back to that moment when Miriam’s Kitchen became her calling, Ms. Bell is overcome with emotion. “That moment changed my entire mindset. Coming into Miriam’s, and seeing that this place provided all the resources that I previously used to judge if a homeless person would receive my support, really shifted my perspective. I realized that just because a person looks like they’re doing well doesn’t mean they are.” For Ms. Bell, that morning serving freshly cooked food to Miriam’s guests was a wake up call, one 30+ years in the making.
Prior to becoming the Executive Chef at Miriam’s Kitchen, a social services organization in Washington, D.C. focused on ending chronic homelessness, Ms. Bell worked an unassuming job as an executive administrative professional. She had previously toyed with the idea of pursuing her love of cooking, even at one time being told by her pastor that she should have a baking business. But simply cooking was not enough for Ms. Bell; her previous experiences with Habitat for Humanity had shown her that she needed to be involved with helping people.
Her journey with Miriam’s—one that has seen her re-born and blossom into a positive force for change—began two years ago. Following a volunteer shift that was simultaneously nerve-racking and awe-inspiring, Ms. Bell began to devote herself (and her time) to Miriam’s. Her meteoric rise through the organization from volunteer, to sous chef, to the executive chef has been driven by an unshakable devotion to the people in our city that are often times ignored first. In her short time as executive chef, Ms. Bell has worked to strengthen the mission of Miriam’s, and has helped push forward an organization at the forefront of battling chronic homelessness in the city. It is then no surprise that at the moment, Miriam’s Kitchen has a volunteer roster of over 2,000 people, and is expanding its capabilities to provide even more services to a undervalued demographic that includes veterans, single mothers, and the elderly.
Miriam’s Kitchen is located at 2401 Virginia Avenue NW. Please visit their site for more information on how to volunteer.
Brightest Young Things: What led you to Miriam’s and what did you do before Miriam’s that has made you so involved with the organization?
Cheryl Bell: It’s a funny story because I was a thirty plus year executive administrative professional serving c-suite executives for most of my career until two years ago. The first time I volunteered at Miriam’s, they had me work out in the dining area. It was very overwhelming because I’m an introvert, which may be hard to believe when you see me in the kitchen. Even though I initially thought I couldn’t do this, I decided I would come back because I really like cooking and wanted to help. So when I came back the second time, they put me to work in the kitchen and it was at that moment, on the line serving food, that I knew I could do this for the rest of my life. I saw a part of me that I had never seen before come alive in an environment that I would usually be overwhelmed with. I immediately asked if I could volunteer more frequently, and I started to come in 8 times a month. Eventually Miriam’s asked me if I wanted to be a volunteer sous chef.
Not too long after that, after I worked a few events for Miriam’s, the main chef asked if I wanted to transition from volunteering to being an employee. I was so excited that they not only thought of me, but actually considered me for a position. I didn’t know what the job was, or what the pay was, but I really didn’t care; it was a dream come true for me. Shortly thereafter, I started as an executive sous chef, and volunteered to work the breakfasts shifts four days a week. Since then that’s the only shift I work and I love it; mornings give me the ability and the privilege of changing people’s minds and creating a positive atmosphere first thing in the morning. The people that we serve are usually living in terrible circumstances, and when they come into Miriam’s their minds aren’t in the best place. So when they come in here and I’m serving, my entire mission is to create a caring atmosphere where our guest are treated with dignity and respect. We want our food to be the primary gateway for all the other services Miriam’s provides. I’ve seen it make a difference, and it is so important for me to make it right every single time.
Brightest Young Things: Can you speak about that moment when you were first working on the serving line, and what sparked in you to devote your life to Miriam’s?
Cheryl Bell: Up to that point I had been working as an executive administrative professional, and I knew that that was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. From previous experiences, I also knew that I really enjoyed cooking. On that day at Miriam’s, I was prepping food and I was in my zone; for an introvert preparing food is a very easy, but singular, task. When I was asked to work the serving line, I became very nervous initially. There was moment after a few interactions that I realized that I could be one of the guests we serve, that instead of serving the food I could very easily be asking for food. That moment changed my entire mindset. I was always taught to look at a person’s clothing, if they had a haircut, and other things that could indicate if they were homeless.
Coming into Miriam’s, and seeing that this place provided all the resources that I previously used to judge if a homeless person would receive my support, really shifted my perspective. I realized that just because a person looks like they’re doing well doesn’t mean they are. So when I was serving our guests, it was all about treating them the way I would want to be treated, and also getting them to make it until we could get them into housing. Serving food became much more than just serving food; I was doing what it was I was born to do and what I knew I was supposed to do. And it was in that moment, that I realized this was what I had to do.
Brightest Young Things: What have you done in the kitchen to impart the passion you feel onto the people that work for you? How has your leadership evolved since you started in this role at Miriam’s?
Cheryl Bell: I think I’ve created an environment where our guests know that the chef is approachable. I think I’ve changed the culture where I’ve made an effort to come out and speak with our guests. That effort has helped diffuse situations on the main floor that would otherwise result in some of our guests being suspended from coming to Miriam’s. I take interest in our people, and try to evangelize our guests through the food experience; just making sure that I am always helping and supporting our people. I work with my team to have a mission statement that I wanted our kitchen team to live by. We went beyond just making food; we are aiming for a higher goal of helping our guests. At the end of the day, we are here for our guests and we use food as an entry point for case management.
Brightest Young Things: For someone looking to get involved, what should they expect from Miriam’s, and also where is Miriam’s headed in the future?
Cheryl Bell: In terms of what people should expect, I think they should expect an experience that is completely opposite of what most people associate with a “soup kitchen.” Miriam’s is a family atmosphere where we really care about our people and we give a 100 percent to what we do to make the lives of our guests better. Miriam’s has a roster of 2,000 volunteers, and people always want to come here because the experience here is unlike anywhere else in D.C. We serve food that is a really high quality, and we treat our guests with an experience that extends beyond food. There are many opportunities for any person.
For the future, Miriam’s is looking into other opportunities of trying to have other solutions for housing. We are always looking for ways to better serve our guests, and we are always trying to eliminate bureaucratic barriers or other red tape that prevents access to assistance for our guests. We are also focused on extending our services to people who may fall outside the traditional description of homelessness. Ultimately, we want to eliminate homelessness but getting there will require long-term solutions that ensure that once a person is out of homelessness that they stay there.