Love Kitchen director’s death leaves chasm

Betsy PickleEast Knox, Obits, Our Town Leaders

Monday was a tough day at the Love Kitchen.

Volunteers who came in for their regular shift did so even as they grieved the loss of executive director Patrick Riggins, who died of a heart attack on Friday. The Knoxville native, 54, was due to return from medical leave on Monday after recuperating from a recent stent surgery.

“Executive director” doesn’t begin to describe the role Riggins played at the Love Kitchen. Initially encouraged by family members, he began volunteering at the East Knoxville nonprofit 20 years ago. He started by picking up food donations and then began helping out on the premises. He put together media campaigns and designed newspaper ads.

He took on more and more duties as twin sisters Helen Ashe and Ellen Turner, the nurses who founded the kitchen, grew older and frailer.

The son and grandson of doctors, not only did Riggins take over the management of the Love Kitchen, he also became the chauffeur and assistant to the sisters.

“He was helpful with their business affairs, and in their last years he became their chauffeur because Ellen wasn’t able to drive anymore,” said Ernie Roberts, who served alongside Riggins, president of the Love Kitchen’s board of directors, as the vice president. “Patrick took care of them, all their needs, as they got older. And anything that had to do with the Love Kitchen.”

Riggins, a computer programmer by training, spent 40 to 60 hours a week serving the Love Kitchen and “got along with everybody,” Roberts says. In an interview with this reporter more than a decade ago, he talked about making the operation more efficient and organized in order to serve more people and keep volunteers from burning out.

Roberts says Riggins was “very, very intense” about serving, but he took everything in stride; nothing upset him.

“If we had mechanical problems, if something broke, if something big happened, Patrick was a good problem solver,” he says. “He might be able to figure it out himself, or he’d get someone he knew.

“He was a great leader in our organization and has brought great growth, even after the death of the two sisters. He has maintained the course. And he did it as a volunteer. It’s amazing how much time he would give to keep that legacy of those two ladies going.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Love Kitchen would feed people on site as well as deliver food. People can still come and pick up free meals on Wednesday and Thursday, but “the majority of our mission is feeding the homebound and shut-ins,” says Roberts. Every Thursday afternoon, volunteers deliver “a tower of seven meals” to last recipients a week.

“We have begun an outreach to people in outlying counties,” says Roberts. “We’re still doing plenty in Knoxville and Knox County. We’re going outside the box and reaching out.”

Riggins’ service was rooted in his Christian faith.

Asked to describe his friend in one word, Roberts chose “caring. It’s a simple word, but he cared for a lot of things and a lot of people. He cared that people would be treated with respect and love, because that’s what we were about. When you give that much time to something for no praise, no rewards, you really do care.”

Visitation for Riggins will be Wednesday afternoon with burial on Thursday morning. See details here.

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