Tragedy led St. Matthews Mayor Rick Tonini to St. Vincent de Paul Louisville twenty years ago.
On Sept. 7, 2003, Tonini’s daughter, Lauren, who was studying to be a veterinarian at Auburn University, died in a single car crash at the age of 21 while returning to campus.
“It’s the most devastating thing that can happen to you in life. People have no idea unless it’s happened to them,” Tonini said. “It was a real dread to us that here comes this holiday, which she’s usually a part of, and she’s not going to be here. So I said, ‘Why don’t we go and work at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving … to help take our minds off of it?’”
After a not so good experience serving at Thanksgiving, they tried volunteering at the Open Hand Kitchen (OHK) for lunch on Christmas Day. It was the one bright spot on a most difficult Christmas for him, his wife, and daughter.
“It was a great experience for me,” Tonini added. “I just enjoyed the interaction with the clients and I knew several volunteers who were there. It did create a nice diversion … and I liked it. So I started going every Sunday.”
Two decades later, Tonini hasn’t looked back.
“There’s no question I do this in honor of my daughter. That’s how I got started and why I’m doing it now,” he said. “I guess I’ll do it until my body gives out.”
Tonini, who is a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, is known as Mayor Rick whenever he steps foot in the Open Hand Kitchen. But for him, he’s just there to serve and interact with those who need a meal.
“It’s very rewarding for me to do that because I can take an hour or so and I can do things for people and have them appreciate it,” Tonini said. “The Open Hand Kitchen provides a terrific meal for our clients and those people come in, stand in line, pick up a pre-prepared tray, and get a terrific meal.”
Though we feed roughly 150 to 200 people every lunch, that’s not what’s significant about serving.
“People want to know that they’re not just a number going through, that the volunteers and staff care about them,” Tonini added.
Tonini, amidst a jam-packed mayoral schedule during the week, doesn’t just put his feet up on the weekends, but rearranges his schedule to make sure he’s there.
“Every Sunday afternoon and every holiday meal you can always see Rick Tonini behind the serving line offering a welcoming smile to the OHK’s guests,” said Donna Young, SVDP’s Director of Conference Affairs & Volunteer Services. “Rick is a perfect example of a volunteer giving of his time to help those in need.”
Every Sunday morning, Tonini plays a round of golf with the same group of guys. However, on days when there’s less sunlight in the morning and the tee time starts later, that doesn’t stop him from leaving without finishing 18 holes and still showing up to serve.
“Even though I love golf, working with the Open Hand Kitchen is my primary thing that I do on Sunday mornings,” Tonini added. “When it rains that morning, I can’t play golf, but I can go down to St. Vincent de Paul. So it’s good.”
Tonini served as city councilman for 30 years before taking office as mayor in 2015. He is also the co-owner of a family business, Tonini Church Supply Company. The store first opened in downtown Louisville in the mid-1880s.