Every Wednesday since the summer of 2015, Ashley has visited the Ashland Community Kitchen to serve food to people who are in need.
The talented photographer not only sees life through her Nikon lens, but she examines her own heart and internal needs during these moments.
“I love coming here,” she told me with a big smile. “I feel like I’m contributing.”
A divorce three years ago invited unwanted and negative feelings about herself. She decided to become involved in something outside of her own and her children’s personal needs. “I wanted to feel positive about me.”
She enjoys talking to people and is a curious person by nature.
The exploration of the human condition and meaningful conversation draws her back each week.
The desire to engage in worthwhile dialogue is sometimes more nutritious than a meal.
“Some just want to talk,” she said. “Everyone has a story to tell.”
The 90 minutes she spends each Wednesday leads to a self-examination of her own circumstances.
“I don’t think any of us are that far removed from being here ourselves,” she noted. “I found that out after I went through my divorce. I was emotionally vulnerable, and financially too.”
It makes me wonder what happened in their lives to bring them here.
She takes the time to smile and talk to a client who might be a former teacher or an engineer who has come upon bad times. The past doesn’t seem relevant — the current does.
When she enters the back door of the kitchen and ties an apron around her waist, she puts down her camera and focuses on life’s big picture.
There is no judgment or a rush to any conclusion. She simply helps and puts aside the notion to form any opinion, looking at the person instead of the tattered shirt or gruffly and desperate face.
“It makes me wonder what happened in their lives to bring them here,” she said. “I don’t know what they’ve been through, but I know it’s been something.”
I sat and talked with a few “clients” who made their way into the kitchen to eat.
Tyler and Lilly, a young couple from Pikeville, Kentucky, came in for lunch.
“This place is a Godsend,” Tyler said between bites of turkey and mashed potatoes. “We are here because we need help right now, but I plan to find a job and get us back on our feet.”
Then I strolled over and sat with Robert, who is a regular customer.
He has been on disability for “as long as I can remember” due to a diagnosed mental disorder and said he would “starve to death I guess” if not for the kitchen. His words were few and far between.
A few moments later, I sat down next to a woman with her mother who sobbed as she told me her son-in-law, and father of her three grandchildren was heading off to prison. The kitchen not only provides meals for her and her daughter and grandchildren but a place of comfort from the unfriendly world outside of its walls.
“We can get what we need here,” she said. “We can get clothes and other stuff. It’s tough, but we’re gonna be okay.”
The Ashland Community Kitchen started to make a difference in the early 1980s.
At that time, the city of Ashland, located along the northern Kentucky shore of the Ohio River, struggled economically. Many people were not able to find jobs or food. Unemployment was high, and so were tensions. Several Christian women met the challenge head-on and started a soup kitchen.
You can’t paint everyone with the same brush.
— Todd, executive director of the ACK
Today, the ACK serves about 9,000 meals a month to those in need.
Todd, a local businessman, pastor, and executive director of the Ashland Community Kitchen and The Neighborhood, said the cause is great and diverse in the river city of about 22,000 people.
“You can’t paint everyone with the same brush,” he said. “Some people come here because of addiction, and some are here because of poverty.”
When I spoke to Todd, he had just finished a conversation with a male client who told him he was on food stamps and going to food banks, but he was still in need of more nourishment.
Stories like that lead the kitchen to serve more evening meals to people who are hungry.
“We serve about 1,800 dinners a month or 60 each night,” he said.
However, a report a few months ago on WSAZ told viewers that homeless numbers were shrinking.
Todd did not directly refute the story, but he is seeing an influx of homeless people. “All I can say is that we are feeding more people each month.”
Woody has been in and out of prison most of his life. The 61-year-old went from “rocking a sign” on 13th Street and Winchester Avenue, to a job at the ACK.
He drives the rescue truck to pick up food donations from Walmart and Kroger and brings them back to the kitchen for distribution.
People of faith took it upon themselves to witness to the homeless man a few years ago.
Woody said they would come down and “aggravate” him in such a way that he saw his need was more than food. He needed a Savior.
“My wife and I wanted to get clean and wanted to live right,” he said. “God has been good to us.”
He went from pushing a wheelchair, which held his life belongings, and walking on a prosthetic leg, with a tennis shoe duct taped to it for balance, to the promise of a perfect body and a home in Heaven one day.
“I’ve been clean almost two years and gave my heart to the Lord,” he said. “I’m happy now because I love myself because He loved me.”
Dave and Stella have been volunteering for years at the kitchen.
They are both retired and see the daunting need in their community.
“I have time, and I want to help,” he said. “People are hurting out there.”
Dave has observed over the past few weeks an increase in the number of people coming in for a meal.
“We have our regulars, but I’ve noticed more new faces which tells me there are more homeless in the area,” he said. “I see more backpacks and bags that tells me people are on the move.”
For now, he and his wife will continue to do what they can to help and pray for an answer to the ongoing problem of people who have no place to call home.
“I know there has to be a solution, but it must be much higher than I can comprehend,” he said.
The kitchen is a full circle of love. The clients take home basic needs for survival while the volunteers leave with a sense of temporary satisfaction. The organizers and behind-the-scene folks provide an extension of hope for all involved. They need each other and help one another in some way to fill the voids.
I was definitely impacted by the few moments of my life I took to sit and talk with these people who are at rock bottom. I am certainly not happy about their circumstances, but I am pleased that their needs are being met by kind and compassionate people from the community.
I feel unworthy of my blessings from God, but I accept them. I truly know they could be gone in a heartbeat. My visit reinforced my gratefulness for what I possess and stirred an awkward desire to do more to help.
I thank God for choosing to bless me with a loving family and a good job to help me provide for our needs. I am also grateful that God has allowed me to be an award-winning writer and published author. I have everything I could ever want or need.
Yet I am aware: “There but for the grace of God go I.” — John Bradford
The Lord’s grace is seen through the Ashland Community Kitchen and through Todd, a businessman/pastor. Grace is evident in Woody’s life, and it abounds in Dave and Stella.
Grace is bestowed on Ashley who now makes her heart vulnerable instead of her emotions and finances. And grace will be what all the others need who enter the kitchen to find food and a smile.
Ashley was right when she said, “everyone has a story to tell.” Everyone does indeed.
Arrogance has no place in life and needs to be replaced with humility. I need to help more and judge less.
People’s stories need to be heard.
What about you? Do you go out of your way to help those in need, or do you ignore them?
He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack; but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse. (Proverbs 28: 27 KJV)
For more information on the Ashland Community Kitchen or to help, visit their website here.