Written by Taylor Moore
“L-O-V-E”, Robert Kantowski says. “That’s what they were from day one.”
The kitchen is winding down a quarter after three on March 8 and only a few people remain in the seating area. Jason Ballard, a dish washer for the Love Kitchen, is running around to make sure everything is in place, clean and ready to go for the next day. Today was the sisters’ first birthday since they both passed.
Twenty years ago, Jason walked in the Love Kitchen to find Helen and Ellen, two twin sisters, washing dishes. He introduced himself, told them he was in need, and they welcomed him in with open arms to feed him and help with their cause. The sisters got food to him whenever he needed, and they taught him how to cook, package and serve food. They would go on to extend this same kindness to thousands of other people.
Helen Ashe and Ellen Turner started the Love Kitchen in the basement of a local Knoxville church in 1986 with a mission to feed the hungry and help those in need. Since then, the Love Kitchen has grown into a modern building where it now resides and has remained a home away from home for many in the community. Today, over 3,100 meals are served to the community, with more than 80 percent given to the homebound. The Love Kitchen has been featured on local news stations and even reaching the global community on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Ellen Turner passed away on April 23, 2015 at UT Medical Center. Helen Ashe passed away on Feb. 13, 2018.
Robert Kantowksi, who has served as manager of the Love Kitchen for seven years, said times were tough when the sisters passed.
“When Ellen died, it tore me up to see her gone, and I cried. She was just this little 82-pound lady who cared about people and she let people know that God loves you,” he said. “I have a hole in my heart now that they’re gone. But I know they’re in a better place. They’re up there right now with God looking down at the Love Kitchen.”
94-year-old Lance Owens has volunteered at the Love Kitchen for years despite his failing eye-sight. He knew the sisters for over 30 years, since they were at his church on Chestnut.
He sat in his wheelchair with a hoodie and cap on making jokes and reminiscing about the sisters.
“I liked the way they conducted themselves. They were very reserved and made good conversation,” Owens said.
“Was there anything bad about the sisters Mr. Lance?” Kantowski asked.
“Yeah,” Owens said. “There weren’t enough of them”.
Known as the sister’s non-familiar grandson and the executive director of the Love Kitchen, Patrick Riggins knew the sisters for 18 years. He got involved with the Love Kitchen when he began picking up food for them.
Riggins talked about countless memories he had of the sisters, including their visit to go see Oprah; how the sisters were initially opposed to flying, their brief problem when ordering chicken from room service and how they were treated like royalty while in Chicago for the show.
“I’d clown around with the sisters. They had this youthful exuberance around them where you could joke and laugh with them,” he said. “That’s kind of what you miss.”
Despite the sisters passing, the Love Kitchen has no plans of slowing down.
“It’s not the end of the Love Kitchen,” Kantowksi said. “It’s the beginning of Helen and Ellen’s legacy”.
Although the two heartbeats of this nonprofit are laid to rest, their legacy boldly lingers throughout the Love Kitchen.
Edited by Taylor Owens