By Holly Gregor via voice-tribune.com | Photos by Kathryn Harrington
It all fell into place. “Carole sent you to me,” said Judy Watson Gordon to Robert Holmes sitting next to her. That was the beginning of putting the pieces together.
The story begins when Carole Crawford died in 2009 at age 45 in a horrific car wreck after being hit by a lifelong drug addict who was high at the time.
Carole and Judy were sisters and best friends. They talked on the phone every night. Carole, the third of seven siblings, lived in Huntington, West Virginia, and Judy, the oldest, lived in their hometown in Louisville.
Carole called Judy, who was geting a divorce, to check in on her, but they also talked about Carole starting a Thursday night dinner for the students at Marshall University, where she worked, that weren’t getting enough food. She called it Dinner for A Dollar, although if you didn’t have a dollar you could still eat. “Carole was recreating our childhood tradition of eating Sunday dinner after church at our grandmothers house near Churchill Downs,” says Judy.
Carole believed those family dinners at her grandmother’s were the foundation for her life. “It all started around the table,” explains Judy. “It’s about feeding the soul.”
Carole’s mission was to not only nourish the young adults with food but connect them to fellow students, to bring their challenges out in the open and to build a community.
It had been a couple of years that Dinner for a Dollar was in full swing when Carole abruptly died. Judy was the first to get a call from Carole’s husband. “Pull over and take the keys out. I have to tell you something,” Judy’s brother-in-law instructed her. “Carole and Meaghan died today.” After that, Judy doesn’t remember what happened.
There were three people in the car that day. Carole was driving, her 16-year-old daughter Meaghan was in the front seat and 14-year-old Kelsey Kuhn, Meaghan’s best friend’s little sister, was in the back. They all perished.
It was a weekday so Carole was taking the kids to school that morning. The usual carpool also included her son Christopher, 17, and Meaghan’s best friend Kendall Kuhn, 16. Just as Chris was about to get in the car, a friend drove up and reminded him they had work after school. Carole told Chris to go get his uniform and ride to school with his friend. It saved his life. Just as eerily remarkable, Kendall had an eye doctor appointment that morning, so she stayed behind. It turned out they had written the wrong date on her appointment card. It was two days later.
As fast as the lives of Judy and her family changed, the healing did not come as fast. They spent seven-and-a-half years in court seeking justice from the addicted woman who caused the accident, the doctor who prescribed the pills to the woman and a handful of pharmacies who filled the prescriptions. The woman was able to obtain so many drugs by visiting a “pill mill” and getting a prescription from a doctor, making copies of the prescription and then taking them to pharmacies in town to be filled. The checks and balances in place at pharmacies at that time did not work. The law has since been changed in the state of West Virginia because of their lawsuit.
The last lawsuit was with Subaru, which involved horrific details of mechanical failure and the vehicle’s fuel line catching on fire. It ended in 2017 and was the only suit they lost.
During the trial years, Judy and her family showed up as strong as soldiers. Judy, sat next to her mother and each sibling, oldest to youngest, followed suit – stoic, game faces on. “The trials were like duty. We felt the only way we could help them was to seek as much justice as we could get. I feel like as much is humanly possible, we did get justice for them,” exclaims Judy. The woman received three 10-year sentences for every life she took.
The trials did take their toll. Judy’s brother-in-law, Carole’s husband, died of cancer before they were over, and her mother died a month after the last trial, also of cancer.
For many years, Judy kept asking, “Why, why, why?” As time has passed, she has found more peace. “I do believe everyone’s life has a plan.” As for knowing why, Judy refers to the old country hymn, “We will understand it better by and by.”
Looking back on it, Judy isn’t sure how she kept going. “I’m not going to say I didn’t at times feel sorry for myself,” she says. “The fact (that) I was going through a divorce, I was new to real estate and the housing market had just plummeted nationwide and the countless trips to Huntington, West Virginia, to attend the trials began wearing me down.” Judy had been with Kentucky Select for only three years, but in that time she befriended Barbara Osbourne, the head administrator. Barbara would call Judy and say, “Get up, get dressed and get in here. I don’t care how long it takes you.”
“It was just what I needed,” says Judy, reflecting on how grateful she is to Barbara.
The other thing that kept Judy moving forward was continuing the Thursday night dinners her sister started at Marshall University. And within a year of Carole dying, Judy got involved with Blessings In A Backpack, a non-profit program that fills up backpacks with food to take home on the weekends for elementary kids who need it. Both programs were exceedingly helpful because even on her worst day, Judy could say, “I’m not a homeless, hungry child.”
Another gift came early on when Judy received a letter from Meaghan, also her god-daughter, in the mail two days after she died. “It said, ‘To my fairy Godmother,’ and ended with, ‘See you at Easter.’ It was like getting a letter from heaven.”
“I feel like I fought the good fight and I won the race. But you have to know when to say when. I’m done.”
Now, Judy’s therapy to start healing is called Carole’s Kitchen, the non-profit she and her family members – Christopher Crawford, Jay Watson, Susan Graf and Tim Watson –started to honor their sister, continuing what she created at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
With plans to bring Carole’s Kitchen to Louisville, yet not finding a natural path, all that changed when Robert Holmes with Jefferson County Public Schools coincidentally sat next to Judy at a Blessings In A Backpack board meeting. He told Judy about the homeless high school students who don’t have enough to eat. That was in 2016 and Carole’s Kitchen was soon thereafter created to eliminate barriers that keep children from going to school. “It really does start from food,” she says. “If kids are not getting their basic needs met, that leads to not finishing school, getting into gangs and then drugs. The only thing to do is try to change their lives so they have a chance.”
Along with the original Thursday night dinners at Marshall University, Carole’s Kitchen has two food pantries in Louisville high schools – Seneca and Western – and four back-up (to Blessings in a Backpack) food pantries at elementary schools – Wheatley, Engelhard, Frayser and Goldsmith, and more are on the way. Food isn’t the only help they give, but it is their foundation. There’s also a Carole’s Kitchen in Hilton Head, South Carolina where Tim, Judy’s brother, lives.
Not long ago, Judy got an email late at night reading, “Do I have to have an ID to get food?” Judy replied, “No, you just have to be hungry.” The woman told Judy she had been praying all night, “How am I going to feed my children?” Judy told the woman, “My sister sent you to me.”
That fateful day, Mr. Holmes brought it to Judy’s attention that some kids at Seneca High School were not coming to school because they were hungry. Judy knew exactly what to do: call Patty Frank Kantlehner.
Patty and Judy were good friends in high school, but even closer in college when they spent the summer of their freshman year at the University of Kentucky. “In one of our classes, Patty and I watched a show on PBS about the Trojan Horse (a 12th century tale about the Greeks invading the city of Troy inside a wooden horse they built) and that it was still missing somewhere in the desert. Patty said, ‘Wow, we have to go find it.’” Judy continues reminiscing, “We had the best summer. We went to the pool, took dance lessons and planned our Trojan Horse search.”
When Judy called Patty to tell her that her alma mater was in trouble, Patty, class of 1976, jumped all in. According to Jefferson County Public Schools, statistics show that Seneca had the second largest homeless population of any high school in Louisville last year. Patty recalls, “When I went to Seneca, it was a really strong academic school. Several famous people graduated from there: Diane Sawyer, Wes Unseld (basketball player) and Mayor Jerry Abramson.” In talking about her alma mater, Patty speaks with a smile on her face and a sense of pride. “We had a real community spirit. It was diverse and we had a good time.”
All that came through when Patty and Judy started a food pantry under the umbrella of Carole’s Kitchen, the already existing non-profit, making the job much easier and faster. Next came reaching out to the alumni. Patty got an amazing response for volunteers, and they even raised $3,500 in a short amount of time. A Seneca graduate, Susie Spurlock Rhode, says, “We need to feed these kids that are walking the same halls that we did.”
The alumni have played a large part in the success of the food pantry, but it goes beyond just handing out food. “It’s almost like the stigma of being homeless or hungry goes away,” says Patty. Oftentimes, the connection between the alumni and the students start up conversations along the lines of, “When I went to school here…”
“I think you break down the walls of embarrassment,” says Judy. It was just like when Carole started the Thursday night dinners at Marshall University; it was the food that brought them to the table, but it was the conversation that made them stay. “There’s something spiritual about sharing food and sharing a meal. When you’re feeding somebody you’re not just feeding their body – you’re feeding their soul,” says Judy.
According to Blessings In A Backpack, 64,000 children in Jefferson County struggle with food insecurity. “It’s really hard for people to believe and they don’t want to think there are homeless, hungry children in their city,” making this problem one of the hardest to raise money for. “I want to shout it from the rooftops!” says Judy.
Although not hard to believe, the fact remains that hunger leads to poor school performance, behavioral issues and even psychological problems. So when Patty, Judy and all of the volunteers pass out food for the students, it’s not just about the food.
Another case in point is when the volunteers pass out the food, they ask, “What else do you need?” Because of that willingness to help, hygiene products are also given away and a washer and dryer was donated to the school along with other household items that went directly to the families that needed them.
Remarkably, Carole’s Kitchen doesn’t have any overhead. All of the money goes directly to the students. Judy and her family do all of the work on their own time.
Carole’s Kitchen started out of love and continues because of the love given and received. Patty recounts a student she gave food to recently. “She had four brothers and sisters and two grannies. She asked me, ‘What can I take?’ I told her, ‘Whatever you need.’ She walked away with the biggest smile on her face and said, ‘We’re going to have a party tonight.’” Patty is still amazed by the happiness the students show for something many of us take for granted. “It just feels so good.” Patty’s parting words, “We may not have found the Trojan Horse yet, but by God we can start a food pantry.”