By Mark Nagi

Ending hunger for everyone. “The Love Kitchen” in East Knoxville was born on Valentine’s Day 1986 with that mission in mind. It was the brainchild of twin sisters Helen Ashe and Ellen Turner. They served 22 people that first day. All that Helen and Ellen wanted was to have a place where anyone and everyone could come and receive food.

“Helen and Ellen were daughters of sharecroppers,” said Martin Riggins, interim executive director of The Love Kitchen. “They became nurses later in life and when they would work in the hospital, they would notice that there were patients that didn’t have anything to eat and had been waiting in the waiting room for hours so what they did was take their own money and go to the cafeteria and buy the patients something to eat while they waited.

“They (Helen and Ellen) have taken what they saw as a need to feed people, hungry people the homeless the helpless, the homebound,” said Ernie Roberts, president of the board at The Love Kitchen. “They take care of so many different works there and their energy, their excitement, their smile their hugs… oh my gosh their hugs… they are just amazing, the impact they have on individuals, and also when you see their pictures you can’t help but smile. It’s just an exciting moment.”

The Love Kitchen is a staple in East Tennessee, feeding those who are hungry and comforting those who are hurting. It’s been over 36 years, and they are still making a difference. Each and every week, the Love Kitchen delivers over two thousand meals to those who are homebound and serves over 200 more in-house. That’s approximately 120,000 times a year when someone that could have gone hungry is fed.

“You can see the effect,” said Riggins. “There are so many people that have something they do… and they don’t really feel or realize the impact that they have but here you can see the impact. You see the stacks of meals going out the door, thousands of meals that go out the door every week. A week’s worth of food for people that otherwise would not have it. They can’t get out of their house. They have no family members to help them. And we are here.”

During the holidays that need increases, but so does the impact of the Love Kitchen’s volunteers. They work tirelessly to continue what Helen and Ellen built.

“Christmas and New Year’s… during the holiday season the demand does ramp up somewhat and our demands for volunteers ramps up,” said Roberts. “Sometimes people are already adjusting to other things celebrations and things so don’t forget us. We are still operating and sometimes Christmas hits on those days we are working here other times we work around it. Their legacy lives on. And that’s part of what we want to do here at The Love Kitchen is continue that dream, that vision… but the need is here, and the need is so strong. And they were willing to go out and meet it. We work homebound and feed a couple of days a week for people to come by and get a meal if they need it during the day, and we have a great volunteer crew that comes in and just blows me away at how well they work together, week in week out for 52 weeks, 365 days a year. You don’t get a week off for people being hungry. We don’t get a week away from people needing food and such, they are always here. So, it is great to have people willing to come in every week and do this.

Helen Ashe passed away in 2015 and Ellen Turner in 2018, but today The Love Kitchen still spreads their message, that “Everybody is God’s Somebody.” Martin Riggins continues the tradition, taking over for his brother Patrick, who was integral to the success of The Love Kitchen for many years and passed away in 2021.

“There are times, yes, when things are getting wild and hectic and things go wrong… the freezer breaks and you wonder how am I going to do this how can I fix this,” said Martin Riggins. “You just sit back and think Patrick made a promise to Helen and Ellen before they passed, and he told them that he would keep The Love Kitchen going and he promised them he would do that. I see that as my duty to my brother to continue that promise that he made to Helen and Ellen to keep this place going. And I take that as a responsibility that I’m not going to fall down on. And Helen and Ellen were so sweet like somebody’s grandmother that would come up and hug you and everything and always so happy to see everybody and yeah… I see that as my job to continue this regardless.“