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Cooking With Love
By T. Wayne Waters

It’s a little past 8:00 on a Wednesday morning and 82-year-old twin sisters, Helen Ashe and Ellen Turner, are in the kitchen cracking eggs into wide-mouth wooden bowls. Brewing coffee infuses the air with an earthy aroma. Ellen gets a handheld electric mixer, plugs it in, and dips its shiny beaters into the yellow egg yolks in the bowl, a soft whirring sound signaling the start of scrambled eggs. Helen, meanwhile, turns her attention from the eggs to white rounds of biscuit dough she begins to lay out on a large metal tray.

The breakfast Helen and Ellen are fixing isn’t for them. It’s for the dozens of needy Knoxville folks who come to this special kitchen on the east side of the city–the Love Kitchen–twice a week, for a free meal cooked with care by the sisters and their volunteer staff. And for delivery to the hundreds of people in need who have no way to get to Love Kitchen. And for the hundreds more who come by and pick up much-needed emergency food bags; for, as the sisters like to say, the hungry, the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless, and the homebound. Helen and Ellen have been doing it for 25 years.

Shortly, the rest of the Love Kitchen volunteers start shuffling in. Men and women. Black and white and shades in between. Young and not so young. Soon, the Love Kitchen is a hustle-bustle of activity, filled with the clang of pots and pans, of metal trays slapped onto metal tables. But filled also with the aromas of life- and spirit-sustaining food, with conversation and laughter, with smiles and yes, love. The warmth in the room isn’t coming only from the heated stoves.

Sowing Seeds of Love

Helen and Ellen grew up poor in Abbeville, South Carolina. Their parents, John and Alice Liddell, were sharecroppers and the twins came to know what work was very early. At the age of eight, they were washing dishes in the home of an area home builder, a chore they actually enjoyed because they didn’t have running water at their own home.

“We had the best parents that have ever been born on Earth!” exclaims Helen. “We didn’t have much money but we never went hungry. We worked for what we got and we shared what we did get. Daddy taught us to work.”

That’s not all their father taught his daughters. He also taught them what he considered the three most important truths in life: There is but one Father, our Heavenly Father; there is but one race, the human race; and never take the last piece of bread from the table because a stranger may come by and have need of it.

When the sisters graduated from high-school in 1946, their father used the nickels and dimes he and their mother had saved up to get Helen and Ellen their class rings, and a bus ticket to someplace that would offer them the opportunity for a better life. They decided to come to Knoxville where several of their aunts lived. They liked it and stayed. They got a job and tried to save as much money as they could to continue their education. Their first job was washing dishes at the grand S&W Cafeteria downtown.  Eventually, Helen and Ellen were able to operate a tiny breakfast nook they named The Coffee Cup in a rented space on Vine Street, and later a second restaurant.

But the twins had bigger plans and entered into nurse training at Knoxville College. They earned their licensed practical nurse credentials, and upon graduation went to work as nurses at the University of Tennessee Hospital. Helen worked with indigent patients on one floor, and Ellen worked on another floor for paying African American patients in those segregated times.

It was here at the hospital, watching the plight of the indigent patients, when the germ of an idea took root in Helen’s mind, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it was her heart where it germinated. Ellen remembers the very moment.

“One day Helen said, ‘It’s bothering me,’” recalls Ellen. “I said,” ‘What’s bothering you, sis?’ “She said,” ‘When the indigent people come through the clinic. This little lady sat out there for five hours with nothing to eat and no money to buy anything. And another one had no food and no transportation or anything.’ “She said,” ‘One day, sis, I’m gonna have a place where all those people who need some food, and need some help and transportation and everything, can get it.’ “She said,” ‘I’m gonna fix it so they’ll have what they need.’”

But Helen’s idea, which her sister whole-heartedly agreed with, had to wait. Meanwhile, she and Ellen each married and in Helen’s case, a child and several grandchildren and great grandchildren followed. Helen worked a total of 26 years at the hospital; Ellen 27. After they had both retired, Helen told her sister she was going to pray about how to help people like those she had tended to in the hospital.

Love Offering

It took a while for everything to fall into place but eventually, Helen and Ellen were able to begin making the dream a reality. The sisters started serving meals to those who would otherwise go hungry, out of a small house in Knoxville on February 13, 1986, appropriately enough the day before Valentine’s Day. They served 22 meals that first day. Thinking they might need more room, they approached the pastor of their church about letting them use the basement of the building to serve food to those in need. The church agreed initially, but soon cut them off for fear of attracting “undesirables.”

It seemed no sooner had the sisters presented their initial love offering to the poor of Knoxville, than they had to find a new place in which to offer it. But these feisty ladies would not be easily deterred. Helen and Ellen scrambled around in those very earliest days and served food wherever they could, until settling in for a time at the downtown YWCA. Eventually, they got the opportunity to establish their own place, at the present location on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, when then Mayor Victor Ashe (no relation to Helen) got the city of Knoxville to renovate an abandoned building, and retrofit it with a large kitchen for use by Love Kitchen. The city of Knoxville rented it to the organization for $1 a year. It was 1991 and Love Kitchen, a nonprofit organization run completely by unpaid volunteers, finally had a permanent home.

Everything went pretty well for the Love Kitchen through the 1990s. By then, the number of volunteers helping the sisters had grown substantially. The organization had begun not only serving meals at its facility, but also preparing take-home meals for those who could pick them up, as well as making meal deliveries for those who were homebound. Love Kitchen depended upon the good graces of concerned people in the community, who were willing to devote time and energy for free, and businesses and organizations willing and able to provide funds and food. But the economy was good and Love Kitchen had all it needed for the time being. Unfortunately, times have a way of changing.

The Darkest Hour is Just before the Dawn

Recent years have been tough economic times all over the nation, and it’s taken its toll in East Tennessee. Love Kitchen found itself by 2008 in the increasingly perilous situation of greatly increased demand for its services, coupled with a significant decrease in monetary contributions. By 2009, the facility had seen a 60 percent drop in donations and a nearly identical increase in demand.

Early in October of 2009, still-new Love Kitchen president and treasurer, Patrick Riggins, had the unpleasant task of telling the board of directors that, despite the best efforts of Helen and Ellen and all the other volunteers, the operation was running out of funds and would have to cut back services. Even then, Riggins grudgingly admitted, Love Kitchen would probably have to close its doors in 2010 unless it somehow raised at least $40,000.

Despite the prognosis Riggins and the Love sisters never gave up hope, remaining determined to keep serving up love on a plate, just as long as they had plates to serve to folks in need. But the situation was dire. Then a remarkable thing happened.

Local Knoxville television broadcasting station WBIR heard about Love Kitchen’s plight and teamed up with radio station WIVK, and several local Panera Bread restaurants, to launch a well-publicized fund-raising campaign for the organization. WBIR had already done a feature on Love Kitchen that spring, which had garnered a little attention and a few donations for the organization, but the local dollars began pouring in with the new campaign. In just two weeks, the “Round up the Dough” benefit pulled in $120,000 for the charity organization, as well as lots of food. WIVK radio listeners raised some $8,000. Abingdon, Virginia-based Food City grocery chain, added more than $3,000 in gift cards to the Love Kitchen fundraising pot.

“We are so grateful for all the people – the volunteers, WBIR, WIVK, the people who gave money – everybody who helped us in our time of need,” says Ellen with obvious emotion. “Everybody,” she adds for emphasis. “We couldn’t be doing this without them.”

By the end of 2009, this long-standing Knoxville charity, that had been on the cusp of collapse, had received almost $300,000 and was once again in good standing. The community had loved the Love Kitchen right back and Helen’s dream was saved!

Love Kitchen’s blessings continued to accumulate last year. Someone with NBC came across the organization through its Web site and found the story irresistible.  One thing led to another and suddenly NBC newsman, Thanh Truong, was in Knoxville with a camera crew, filming the sisters and other volunteers going about their Love Kitchen activities. NBC Nightly News, with Brian Williams, aired the resulting two-minute “Making a Difference” segment in mid-October. More than $7,000 in donations came in through the Love Kitchen website within hours of the broadcast. In the days that followed, thousands of dollars more in online contributions came in, as did about $18,000 mailed to the facility. Eventually, more than $45,000 in donations from all over the country resulted from the national TV broadcast.

Almost as valuable to Helen and Ellen as the monetary donations, were the heartwarming notes that accompanied them.

“There were very inspirational notes with the donations,” says Helen. “Don’t you know that makes you feel good? Unbelievable, honey! It just makes you feel really good that so many people responded to what they saw on television.” Ellen nods vigorously in agreement and voices a spirited “Yes, yes!”

Adding to the blessings, Food City came through again for the Kitchen this past autumn with $6,000 more in gift cards.

Everybody is God’s Somebody

It has been with a hearty combination of grit and persistence, patience and kindness, all sweetened by their sunbeam smiles and lovable good natures, that these remarkable octogenarians have managed to draw volunteers and supporters through the years, sufficient to keep the Love Kitchen going for a quarter-century. The sisters are quick to note that they couldn’t have done it without their help.

“We couldn’t get by without Patrick or without all our volunteers,” says Ellen.

Love Kitchen gets lots of love itself in the form of local folks coming out to help the sisters. Phi Gamma Delta fraternity members from the University of Tennessee have been coming to help out on Wednesdays for18 years, longer than any other organization. Students from the Tennessee School for the Deaf pitch in every Wednesday and Thursday. Knoxville Baptist Christian School students come regularly.

People from other area schools and organizations, Cherokee Health Systems and Scripps Networks among them, do their bit as well. There are also numerous individuals who assist the sisters on a regular basis, both in the kitchen and out, delivering meals.

“We can feel the love from the community,” says Helen. “We can feel their prayers. They pray with us and for us.”

Love Kitchen still operates two days a week. Breakfast is served on Wednesdays and emergency food bags are distributed at the Kitchen. Thursdays mean lunch at the Kitchen and meal deliveries to those unable to get to 2418 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. These days Love Kitchen serves as many as 2,200 meals every week, more than three-quarters of them delivered to homebound recipients. The organization also sometimes supplies necessities like bath tissue and pre-owned clothing when needed, and has been known in cases of extreme hardship to help out with rent or utility bills.

The Love Kitchen facility also houses a community room available to members of the community for training classes, club meetings, and as a safe haven for Knoxville’s underprivileged children.

February 13 marked Love Kitchen’s silver anniversary. Plans for celebrating the event were still being made at press time. According to president of the board of directors Riggins, there will probably be only a small commemoration on that date and a larger one sometime in the autumn.

For Helen and Ellen, the reason they do what they do, the reason they work these 12-hour days even in their 80s and despite health issues for both of them, is summed up in the Love Kitchen motto–“Everybody is God’s Somebody.”

Several places to get additional information on the Love Kitchen and to see Helen and Ellen and the gang doing their good work:

This article originally appeared in SMOKY MOUNTAIN LIVING VOLUME 11 • ISSUE 1

T. Wayne Waters Bio:

Wayne Waters is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based wordsmith whose powerful sense of curiosity leads him to write about all sorts of things. He has a master’s in journalism and nearly a decade of freelance writing experience. A native Georgian, he now lives near the Smoky foothills of Tennessee. He thinks the beauty of the region and of the people who live there is often breathtaking. When not at the keyboard wordsmithing, Wayne enjoys the occasional Smokies hike, a kayak glide on the Tennessee River, savoring a dark ale while enjoying Knoxville’s extraordinary music scene, or just sitting around at home nibbling on tropes and bon mots. Wayne includes the initial (T.) of his never-used first name in bylines. It may be because he thinks it makes him sound important. Or it could be because there are several other Wayne Waters out there who have the unmitigated gall to top him in a Google search.

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COMMENT (1) | community, empowerment, faith, inspiration, service


One Response to “Cooking With Love”

  1. Rose Regina Saskatchewan
    May 2nd, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    I had heard of the Love Kitchen, but your detailed and interesting story really brought it to life. Reading about this was very life-affirming.

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