By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
OWENSBORO, Ky. — Those who have experienced a natural disaster are all too familiar with the timeline of public response.
“The media, people come … then everyone pulls out,” said Sarah Hayden-Thomas, who brought a team — dubbed the “Cajun Chefs” — from Louisiana to assist western Kentucky tornado relief efforts.
“But nothing’s changed” when everyone leaves, said Hayden-Thomas. “We’re still broken.”
Hayden-Thomas grew up in western Kentucky and today resides in St. Amant, Louisiana. Her region was devastated by Hurricane Ida in 2021, and as someone who has lived through multiple hurricanes and floods, she knows what it is like to receive a torrent of support from across the country in the early days — only to be forgotten in a matter of months.
“We’re very familiar with disasters,” Hayden-Thomas said in a phone call with The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.
Yet they’re also familiar with incredible kindness.
After Hurricane Ida happened, her parish, Holy Rosary in St. Amant, was impacted by the generosity of a man from Kentucky who drove down with a packed trailer of supplies to help Holy Rosary with its recovery efforts.
The stranger arrived and departed without any fanfare, and did not even leave his contact information.
So when tornadoes devastated western Kentucky during the night of Dec. 10, 2021, Hayden-Thomas thought about how best to help her native state. She remembered the compassionate Kentucky visitor who had driven hundreds of miles to lend a hand.
“People asked me, ‘What can we do to help?’ ” she said.
Hayden-Thomas reached out to her cousin, Father Carl McCarthy, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Madisonville, Kentucky. Christ the King was one of the western Kentucky parishes that served as a tornado relief hub immediately after the storms.
“Because of that kindness (of the Kentucky visitor), crossing all boundaries and coming to us, we wanted to do something to give back,” said Hayden-Thomas.
With permission from her pastor, Father Joseph Vu, she started putting out word to neighboring parishes about doing something to help western Kentucky.
Their “mission trip,” as they called it, became a collaborative project by parishioners of St. Theresa of Avila Parish and St. Mark Parish in Gonzales, Louisiana, and St. John the Evangelist Parish in Prairieville, Louisiana. Local Knights of Columbus and other Catholic organizations became involved as well.
Hayden-Thomas told Father McCarthy that she wanted to bring the team not in the immediate aftermath but in the months to follow.
The priest suggested that they come during western Kentucky’s spring break week from April 4-8, since volunteers would be converging on the area to help with recovery.
“Maybe you can help feed those extra people,” said Father McCarthy.
From that point on, the Louisiana parishioners plotted out the cooking and food prep details to feed hundreds of volunteers.
A team of 16 people traveled up to western Kentucky, where they served hearty Cajun fare out of a drive-through tent at the Dawson Springs Community Center in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
The Cajun Chefs stayed at Christview Fellowship Church in Madisonville, which had generously opened its doors for them to sleep.
A photo of their flyer went viral on social media, stating that they’d be at the community April 5-8 from 11 a.m. “until the food is gone” and that they would be serving Cajun takeout food “for all in the community at no charge.”
On April 5 they provided 603 servings of jambalaya; on April 6 they provided 575 servings of chicken and sausage spaghetti; on April 7, they provided 700 containers of gumbo and 150 lb. of barbecue chicken; and on April 8, they provided 525 servings of shrimp chowder.
Hayden-Thomas said the Cajun Chefs also delivered 80 plates a day to people displaced by the tornadoes who have been staying at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park.
Hayden-Thomas said the experience “just felt like you were helping your neighbor.”
“We know what it’s like to be shell-shocked, to rebuild time and time again,” she said.
Hayden-Thomas’ journey came full circle when one of the Dawson Springs recovery volunteers, Kim Gilliam, happened across the very man from Kentucky who had helped Holy Rosary with its hurricane relief.
Gilliam connected Hayden-Thomas with the man, and the two later chatted on the phone. Hayden-Thomas asked the man how he came to help at their Louisiana church, and asked if he was Catholic.
He told her he wasn’t Catholic but that he knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone else — who told him about Holy Rosary and how it was helping people after the hurricane.
That’s how he decided to drive down to help her church.
And, “five months later a group of Catholics came (to Kentucky) in response to someone who wasn’t even Catholic,” said Hayden-Thomas, reflecting on the ecumenical nature of their trip, such as getting to stay at the nondenominational church in Madisonville.
She said evangelizing through witness is important to her: “Let there be something about us that someone says, ‘They have something I don’t, and I want to find it.’ ”
The Cajun Chefs “offered what they had and who they are, and it was appreciated,” Father McCarthy told The Western Kentucky Catholic. “That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it.”
“They were sharing something they knew, which was food,” he said. “They gave what they had to give — and isn’t that what we are all called to do?”