In an unassuming brick building on the corner of Fourth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, women who have been homeless rebuild their lives and rediscover the skills they need to care for themselves.
Every other Thursday afternoon the residents of Pathways, a transitional housing program, gather for a cooking class. Cooking is a practical art, but it also offers deeper lessons in self-sufficiency too, says Pathways teacher Juliette Tahar.
“My goal is to give them skills that they can take with them when they live independently,” said Tahar, president and founder of nonprofit organization Healthy Living.
Tahar’s goals are teaching healthy, economical eating habits and providing a sense of community.
“This is the essence of healthy living,” she said.
Tahar, of French descent, has always had an appreciation for nutritious foods and a desire to teach others how to cook healthy, affordable meals. In 1992 she founded Healthy Living as a forprofit business that provided vegetarian and macrobiotic meals as well as catering and teaching services.
During Healthy Living’s early years she began volunteering at homeless shelters for women by teaching cooking classes.
“These experiences taught me the profound impact that something as simple as a basic cooking demonstration and a shared meal can have on the lives of the undernourished and underserved,” Tahar said.
After seeing the women’s self-esteem and sense of empowerment increase, Tahar made the decision in 1997 to reinvent Healthy Living as a nonprofit organization aimed at helping individuals incorporate healthy cooking into their lifestyles and limited budgets.
Since then, the organization has dedicated itself to the vision of empowering homeless men and women with the ability to cook wholesome meals. The program has continued to expand and reach even larger numbers of marginalized populations. Service locations for Healthy Living include homeless shelters, children’s centers, health centers, community centers and schools.
The 10-bed Pathways program is a sister program to the 25-bed Calvary Women’s Shelter, and it assists women who are chronically homeless and have mental health needs. The women are offered a safe place to live, case management, life skill trainings and support services.
The program is considered a stepping stone towards independent living. That is where Tahar fits in, said Janet Norris, a Pathways case manger.
“She really cares about keeping the women healthy, and they are definitely responding,” Norris said. “We love her, and we want her to keep coming back to us.”
“Soul food” read the menu one recent Thursday, yet one would be hard-pressed to find a greasy plate in the dining room: lightly fried perch, quinoa, asparagus, carrots, peas and corn. The women gathered around, enjoying the experience and the sense of community that good food and cooking offers.
Maureen, who has been living at Pathways for almost a year, sang Tahar’s praises, “She’s a wonderful cook and a wonderful person.”