New Fairfax County program diverts people from incarceration to culinary training

Sen. Tim Kaine and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano talk at Mackenzie’s Tunes and Tonics for a press conference on the county’s Taking Root diversion program (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Instead of jail-time, a restaurant job could be waiting for some individuals facing non-violent criminal charges in Fairfax County if they finish a newly launched job training program.

The Pathfinder Kitchen initiative unveiled Monday (Jan. 8) by the Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney builds on the office’s nascent Taking Root diversion program, which offers case management, mental health and substance use assessments, affordable housing and other services to people accused of non-violent crimes in lieu of incarceration.

Starting this spring, participants will get an opportunity to learn culinary skills at Mackenzie’s Tunes and Tonics, which opened in Fairfax City last June, and earn the certification needed to work in the food service industry.

Like the county’s other diversion programs, Taking Root and its new culinary training option are designed to address the underlying causes of crime — in this case, poverty and barriers to employment — so individuals who’ve entered the criminal justice system are less likely to return.

“Pathfinder Kitchen is actually the next generation of that, actually getting people into restaurant training with certificates so they can get a job and build a career,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said. “That’s really, really important for public safety. It’s also the right thing to do.”

Launched in April 2022 by the prosecutors’ office and the nonprofit Opportunities, Alternatives & Resources (OAR), Taking Root focuses on people charged with a non-violent offense who are experiencing an “underlying issue,” such as poverty or drug addiction, that could be eased with treatment or social services.

Descano says his office doesn’t have “hard and fast” eligibility rules for determining who to recommend for the program, but most participants are on their first or second time in the court system, and their diversion plan must be approved by a judge.

So far, 100 people have been referred to Taking Root, and 20 of them have graduated — a milestone that the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, OAR and other supporters, including Sen. Tim Kaine, celebrated at Mackenzie’s (3950 University Drive, Suite 210) on Monday.

According to Descano, the idea for Pathfinder Kitchen was developed with Mackenzie’s owner Josh Alexander, who also chairs the Old Town Fairfax Business Association (OTFBA) board of directors.

“He was telling us about the need to get more people into the restaurant business, into the industry, and we just started to…have this dialogue and said, ‘Hey, we have a crop of people who [could help], if you’re willing to give people second chances’…and they were very receptive,” Descano recalled.

Also supported by the nonprofit Britepaths, which provides supportive services, the pilot program is funded by a Fairfax City grant, and graduates who get their ServSafe certification will be placed in jobs with participating restaurants, all of which are currently in the city.

Reflecting on Taking Root’s first full year of operations, OAR Diversion Program Manager Lula Kelly said the ability to work with each participant based on their specific needs is key to the program’s success.

“There is no cookie cutter set to this. You have to work with where people are, who they are and…the circumstances that they hold,” she said, noting that clients have ranged from individuals with no income to people making $150,000 a year.

One person came into Taking Root with no work experience, issues with his immigration status and substance use struggles. He graduated from the program after nine months and now has a job and an apartment, and his immigration issues have been resolved.

“He’s living a life,” Kelly said. “He’s no longer on drugs, he’s no longer stealing because these are things that build. If you work at things one step at a time, it will come, but you have to instill that hope and that freedom in people that is there.”

Support for diversion from both inside and outside the public safety community has also been critical, Descano says.

In addition to the Britepaths and Fairfax City partnerships, Taking Root was started with $700,000 in federal funds that Kaine secured from Congress in 2022. Local judges and the Fairfax County Police Department have also gotten on board with the program.

With most police encounters involving non-violent people who’ve committed “lower level” offenses, Police Chief Kevin Davis expressed hope that diversion programs like Taking Root could “put the phrase ‘repeat offender’ out of business” by giving individuals a second chance.

“The vast majority of folks who come into contact with our justice system are going to return to our communities, so preparing them for a meaningful return is something we’re all committed to,” he said.

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