WILMINGTON — In 2009, popular cooking show host Rachael Ray brought her show and an HGTV remodel team to Wilmington and transformed the kitchen at Sugartree Ministries.
Now, 11 years later, the ministry is sending heartfelt thanks to the cooking show host after learning that Ray’s home was devastated by fire earlier this month.
The Associated Press reported that Ray and her husband and two dogs were safe after a fire engulfed her home. Flames could be seen shooting from the ceiling in photos of the blaze.
“I was so sad when I heard the news. I couldn’t believe it,” said Al Willoughby, who was the ministry’s director when Ray came to Wilmington. “She is a wonderful person and she showed so much love and care for our community.”
Willoughby recalled how in 2009, he’d received a surprise phone call from Ray’s crew, telling him they would be at Sugartree the next morning.
“I went in the next morning and camera crews followed me into our building. Then around 10 or 11 a.m., I had a live call with Rachel, and that’s when she told me she wanted to remodel our kitchen so we could more easily take care of people and receive people,” Willoughby said. “I was totally surprised. It was really pretty cool.”
For a few weeks, an HGTV team commissioned by Ray worked with Lowe’s to remodel the kitchen.
“When they talked to us about our needs, they asked how many people we were serving and how they could set it up just for our needs,” Willoughby said. “The whole crew was just phenomenal. It was very encouraging.”
Eleven years later, the ministry has used the kitchen to serve thousands of hot meals to those in need in the community. Since then, the ministry has expanded to include a food pantry, men’s emergency shelter, 12-step program, blanket closet, coffee shop, warming and cooling shelter, grocery delivery program, community garden, counseling, and emergency services such as hotel rooms for domestic violence survivors and payment of bills for struggling families.
Current director Lee Sandlin said he was immediately saddened to see the news of Ray’s house fire.
“It caused me to reflect on how much she did for our community and I started to think about her impact on Sugartree. In our greatest time of desperation, to have someone with that much influence take notice of us and choose us, it was so impactful,” Sandlin said. “Coming in and seeing that new kitchen, it was just beautiful.”
After learning of the house fire, the staff at Sugartree commemorated Ray’s visit to Wilmington this week with a framed photo from her visit to hang in the kitchen. Each of the staff members were sending well wishes in a card for the cooking show host as well.
“We love her and we’ll never forget what she did for our community,” Willoughby said. “Eleven years later, it’s still quite a facility she set up for us.”
Even more than a decade after the remodel, the kitchen is still beautiful, Sandlin said.
“This building is so much more than just a structure. It’s so many of the people who have given their love and their time to make it what it is today,” he said. “We’re still caring for and helping others and fighting for them because of people like Rachael Ray who created a beautiful place for us to serve out of.”