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Pat Holmquist had driven past the Free Lunch sign outside of 11 S. Main St. in Dry Ridge about 12 times before she decided to come in.
She was not sure what to expect when she walked into the diner with UK Wildcat blue carpet, an inspirational verse on its menu board and home-cooked food ready to be eaten.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Holmquist said. “I had never seen anything like this. I had to write to (Larry Spears) and tell him. It was just wonderful. I just thank the Lord for Mr. Spears.”
Spears, the namesake of the free kitchen, established the Larry Spears Foundation to help provide a hot lunch to those in need.
After a good life as a Grant County pharmacist and owner of two drug stores, he wanted to thank the community that supported him throughout his career.
“I owe everything I have to the people here,” Spears said. “That’s the reason I formed the Spears Foundation, to give back to the people. I think there is a real need there.”
Spears Kitchen opened the day after Christmas in 2007, and has been a gift to the community since.
More than a year later, the goal and mission have remained the same: To provide food, products and services to help people who are in crisis at the moment and help them overcome barriers in their life and to help families feel easier about being forced to make a choice of buying food or paying rent/bills or taking a sick child to a doctor.
“I’d say it’s gone real well,” Spears said. “I think 75 people is the most we’ve ever had. That was at Thanksgiving.”
While Spears helps mainly with the financial aspects of the foundation, Mary Michael Kells serves as manager of kitchen operations.
Kells is more than comfortable in the kitchen after spending 35 years as manager of the Crittenden-Mount Zion Elementary School cafeteria before retiring in May 2007.
“When you’re mass feeding 700 children, you don’t have a whole lot of time to give them attention,” Kells said. “But, anyone who comes in here, we welcome them and we have time to talk to people and make them feel comfortable.”
“We have strange faces and we have people who come in regularly,” she said. “We have this one family who comes in who are able to pay for food, but they say they want a home cooked meal. So, they come in and give us money for the foundation.”
Although lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, Kells arrives at 8 a.m. to prepare for the day’s meal.
She is joined soon after by Sue O’Connor, one of many volunteers who help with the operation from serving food to cleaning.
The kitchen serves an average of 25 to 35 people a day.
“I try to fix for 30 people every day and I’ll have a backup meal,” Kells said. “What they don’t eat one day will be a choice for the next day. It’s not really how many people come in, it’s that we’re here for the people who need it.”
Providing the daily meals each week would not be possible without donations, Kells said.
Panera Bread, Gordon Food, St. Elizabeth Hospital, Dry Ridge Baptist and Williamstown Baptist are just a handful of the supporters of the foundation.
With a slight increase in diners because of the economic downturn, the stock in the food pantry constantly needs to be replenished.
Kells said a real need is large number 10 cans of green beans, corn and other vegetables and potatoes.
“We have people who come in who might give us a whole ham or a whole turkey,” Kells said. “You never know. Just as soon as I think I’m really going to be out of something, it’s like it comes in. Sue says it’s like I have a direct line to heaven.”
Monetary donations are also helpful, Spears said.
The kitchen has to pay for $3,000 to $4,000 a month in expenses.
“There’s some sort of stigma about (a free meal),” Spears said. “I think if we can get the message across that everybody’s welcome, it would be better. If you feel bad that you shouldn’t take something for free, you’re always welcome to donate.”
Kells described her time since the kitchen opened as “a real joy.”
In particular, she loves meeting people and being able to use imagination and expertise in dealing with food.
“I really wanted people to come in and feel warm and welcomed and they get treated with respect,” Kells said. “That was my goal.”