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,