Arrow-right Camera
News >  Features >  Washington Voices

Christ Kitchen serves hope

After a life of drugs and devastation and losing her children, Kari Kelli has turned her life around. She has risen to managing Christ Kitchen. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
After a life of drugs and devastation and losing her children, Kari Kelli has turned her life around. She has risen to managing Christ Kitchen. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Nonprofit helped woman make fresh start

Twelve years ago, Kari Kelli lay curled up on the floor of a room at Anna Ogden Hall. She hadn’t eaten solid food in months and weighed 100 pounds. She’d lost her children, her car and her job. She’d walked away from it all for what she called the love of her life – methamphetamine. “I gave up everything for that drug,” Kelli said. “It chewed me up, spit me out and left me for dead.”

As she lay on the floor, sick and broken, “I remember daring God to do something with my life,” she said.

From the fragrant warmth of Christ Kitchen in north Spokane, Kelli, now 40, told her story between spoonfuls of Faithful French Lentil Soup. Recently, the kitchen added restaurant seating, and fans of their soups, sandwiches and cookies can now come in and enjoy a meal. Kelli took a sip of water and continued her story. By age 17 she’d left home, married and had her first child. And by her early 20s, she’d been married and divorced several times.

She used drugs and alcohol to fill a void she felt in her life, and more importantly, to numb her pain. In spite of her drug use, she had a good job in a medical lab and a nice home. However, at 24, she tried meth for the first time and everything changed. Meth became the center of her world.

She lost her job, but she didn’t care. “As my insides were crumbling, I continued to chase that high,” Kelli recalled. Soon she had a new job – drug dealer. “I got hooked up with the Mexican mafia,” she said. With a flair for business, she turned a tidy profit for her drug bosses.

Always on the move and surrounded by dangerous associates, Kelli left her kids. Her addiction consumed her.

And then the Spokane Police Department intervened. An officer pulled her over for a busted taillight and found a small amount of drugs in the car. More misfortune followed. With Kelli in jail and out of the way, another dealer took advantage of her absence by claiming she was to blame for missing drugs.

She learned of the betrayal upon her release. Sick, alone and afraid, she made her way to a motel. Kelli had no ID and little cash but when she wandered into the motel, the owner had compassion for her. As Kelli recalled, “He said he felt God told him, ‘Don’t ask this girl any questions. Give her a room. You’re the first person in a long line of people that are going to turn her life around.’ ”

Kelli responded to his kindness in a way typical for her at the time. “I got loaded for 12 straight days until my money ran out.” When she left, the motel owner gave her $5 and a Bible and directed her to Anna Ogden Hall.

She spent her first night of sobriety crying out to God. “I didn’t have anything else to believe,” she said. “So I grabbed on and believed him (God) wholeheartedly.”

From Anna Ogden Hall she was sent to a drug treatment program. “They dubbed me the most angry, violent woman in the program,” she recalled. The more sober Kelli became, the angrier she got. The realization that she’d lost everything to meth infuriated her. Yet, she said, “As far as I know, out of the 30 women I went through treatment with, I’m the only one clean. That’s the transforming power of God.”

When she completed treatment, she moved into drug-free housing and her case worker told her about Christ Kitchen. Jan Bowes Martinez had just launched the fledging enterprise in a local church. She paid women minimum wage to package a dried bean soup mix. Then they would cook up a batch of the soup and share a meal and Bible study.

“The first thing I thought when I met Jan was – whatever she has in her eyes, I want in mine,” Kelli said. The kitchen and Martinez became her lifeline. As her mind slowly cleared from drugs, Kelli spent her time in three places: Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Life Center Church and Christ Kitchen.

It hasn’t been an easy journey. Four years ago, Kelli battled stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Once again she beat the odds. But for her the biggest miracle has been being reunited with all six of her children. While two are grown and out of the house, the younger four now live with her. She beamed. “On Easter morning I woke up and had breakfast with all of my children.”

Three years ago, when Martinez got a grant and moved Christ Kitchen to North Monroe Street, she asked Kelli to be the office manager. Now, Kelli oversees the bustling and ever-expanding nonprofit.

Martinez said, “We’ve got 30 women working right now, but the bottom line is we want to hire more women to work more hours and make a living wage.” She’s excited that many of their products are now available at area Rosauers stores. A second area grocery chain has expressed interest in carrying Christ Kitchen products. As its yearly fundraiser approaches, Martinez said, “Our goal is to be a self-sufficient business, so we aren’t dependent on donations.”

Kelli is the guest speaker for this year’s event. “I love to tell people what God has done in my life,” she said. “There’s no shame in my game. I don’t need to live in the shadow of who I was.”