After destruction of E. Ky. floods, Isom grocery owners get a gift to remember

Ryan C. Hermens/

Last Monday, Herald-Leader photographer Ryan Hermens and I were in Isom to cover the destruction of a local medical clinic by the Eastern Kentucky flooding. After we talked to the staff there, we wandered across the plaza to the Isom IGA, a local landmark and a real center of the community. Gwen Christon had worked at the store since 1973, and in 1998, she and her husband, Arthur, bought it.

The night of the floods, more than six feet of water and mud invaded the store. Christon was in tears as she told us that everything in the 16,000-foot store had to be thrown out — and she had no flood insurance to cover it. Twenty-three employees were out of work.

Her story caught many eyes, but luckily for her, two of those belonged to Father Jim Sichko, a papal Missionary of Mercy, who spends much of his time doing random acts of kindness. One week later, Christon and her employees gathered back at the store so Sichko could deliver a briefcase full $20,000 to the Christons and $10,000 in Amazon gift cards to her 23 employees.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Christon said by phone on Monday afternoon. “People kept telling me he was coming with gifts, but I’m 67 years old, I’ve been working since I graduated from high school, and I’ve never had anyone to give me anything, so this is a new experience for me.”

Christon said she has been overwhelmed by people’s kindness, including a GoFundMe set up by John Ross of the Independent Grocers Alliance.

“I can’t believe people are so giving and so caring,” she said. “I’m very thankful — we do want to rebuild, and this will help as we start through our long work.”

Christon has hired a professional cleaning company to finish getting the food and equipment out of the store, and getting it back to grocery-grade cleanliness. They started today, and it will take at least a month.”

“I got to see my people smile today,” Christon said. The employees got in a line and Sichko handed out the gift cards until they were gone. He told Christon he relies on donations, but when people know they will go straight to the source, they’re more likely to give.

Sichko is a papal Missionary of Mercy, a group of 700 from around the world, including several from the United States, who were appointed directly by Pope Francis in celebration of a “Jubilee of Mercy” that began in December 2015 and has since been extended indefinitely.