Nursery owner goes way beyond show's request to help grieving family

By Kay Harrod Published:

An unexpected call from “The Nate Berkus Show,” televised from New York, allowed Wilson Nurseries owner Jennifer Wilson-Richardson and her staff to comfort a family grieving the loss of their mother.

The episode – which was so popular that it aired a second time last week – was about the death of Karin Blankenship, a 30-year-old Kentucky woman who died during childbirth in June, leaving a family in crisis. 

The phone call to Wilson Nurseries came in late July requesting the “Mercedes” of play sets, as the show fixed up the London, Ky., home of Butch Blankenship and his four children, who were tragically left without their mother.

Berkus show producer Tim Ousley told Bobby Hall at Wilson Nurseries that the show featuring the Laurel County family was shown “not as a re-run, but because it drew the most audience response of the shows that they aired the first week of our first season.” 

Show producers, which include Harpo Productions (owned by Oprah Winfrey) and Sony, sent word they wanted the show aired again as a lead into the Berkus holiday schedule.

The story begins with Karin Blankenship’s untimely death.

Butch Blankenship and his wife, a nurse, were expecting twins, a boy and a girl. They had two sons, Hayden, 7, and Evan, 5, and had hoped for a girl with this pregnancy.

“We were thrilled when we learned that one of the twins was a girl,” Butch Blankenship said.

But Karin Blankenship would never see her newborns. She died of a form of non-contagious bacterial meningitis, giving birth prematurely to the twins. It was a month before the couple’s 10th anniversary. 

Karin Blankenship had awakened on a Saturday in June complaining of a headache. She had a fever the night before, but Evan was graduating from preschool, and the couple went. 

The last family picture of a smiling, pregnant Karin Blankenship, Butch Blankenship, Evan in his graduation gown and Hayden was taken at the school ceremony.

“I knew she really didn’t feel well because I found her crying sitting in my recliner in the living room,” Butch Blankenship recalls on the show.

Butch Blankenship got his wife the two Tylenol she requested and offered to take her to the doctor, but she told him to go on to work. She had called her mother to take her.

Butch Blankenship, who works for 84 Lumber Liquidators, left the house knowing it would be just minutes before Karin’s mother, Hazel Rush, arrived.

“Somewhere along the line, Karin and her mother decided to go to St. Joseph-London where she worked instead of going to the doctor,” Butch Blankenship said.

“I got a call from Hazel, and she said the staff in the emergency room had immediately moved Karin to the OB unit and I needed to come immediately.”

Doctors delivered the 32-week-old twins, and they along with their mother were flown to the University of Kentucky Medical Center. Karin never awakened to see Piper Nicole or Aaron Clay. She was pronounced dead at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, according to The London Sentinel-Echo. 

For the next five weeks, Butch Blankenship traveled between London and Lexington to be with the twins. The two boys stayed with Karin Blankenship’s mother, and periodically their father took them to see their new brother and sister.

When the babies were finally able to come home, Butch Blankenship and the four children moved into his mother’s house. The babies’ room was unfinished, and Blankenship told a Berkus staff member in a pre-interview that it took him, his mother, mother-in-law and his grandmother to tend to all the needs of the four children. 

How the Nate Berkus show learned of the Blankenship story is unclear. Family members did not contact the staff.

Berkus, an interior designer, gained fame when he frequently appeared as a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Under Winfrey’s production company umbrella, “The Nate Berkus Show” was launched this fall.

On the show, Berkus said he was so saddened by the chain of events that he decided to ask his friend, Didiayer Snyder, a designer on “Extreme Home Makeover,” to go to Kentucky and finish the nursery.

While there, Snyder said she would watch the little boys when they came around, and she decided she wanted to do something for them as well.

She contacted Rainbow Play Systems to see if she could get a premier play set for them, one that included swings, a slide and a jungle gym.

Enter an unsuspecting Jennifer Wilson-Richardson.

Wilson Nurseries is the central and east Kentucky sales company for Rainbow Play Systems. Bobby Hall got the first call.

“It came on a Friday from Rainbow wanting to know if we had this particular play set in stock and could we get it to London by Monday,” Hall explained.

Hall said the Nursery did not have the play set, but contacted their distributor only to find out the closest one available was in a warehouse in Indianapolis.

Hall said he consulted with Jennifer and she agreed to make arrangements to get the play set. Those arrangements, it turned out, required Hall and another Wilson’s employee to drive to Indiana to pick up the set on Saturday.

Bright and early Monday morning, Hall, Wilson-Richardson, her husband, Jeremy Richardson, and Jed Edenstrom arrived at the Blankenship residence.

Wilson-Richardson becomes emotional describing their arrival at the home. 

“No one else was there when we arrived, just the three of us. I got out of the truck first, and as I walked up to the house, a feeling came over me, and I knew God had another reason for us to be there besides delivering a play set.

“I said, ‘Lord please show me why we are here and help us do your work.’”

She said the grass around the house was about 10-inches high, as though everything about living in the home had just stopped because of the sadness that had invaded it.

The nursery owner said the men followed her, and they found the front door open.

“We opened the garage door, found the lawn mover and started mowing the grass,” she explained.

Eventually, they were met by staff from the show who explained the work had been rescheduled for Tuesday.

“But we were there, and there was plenty to do. We had some basic supplies like mulch with us.”

The threesome went to work pulling weeds and assessing the landscaping needs. They also found the area behind the house where the play set was to be installed and began to do the preparation for it.

Wilson-Richardson said she walked through the house and out of the kitchen onto a large unfinished deck that stood about 10-feet above where the play equipment would go.

“I guess I had my hands on my hips like I often do when I see a project before me because Bobby and Jeremy looked at me and said almost in unison, ‘We’re going to finish this deck aren’t we?’”

Wilson-Richardson said it must have been a “mother-thing,” thinking about the safety of the children going out on that deck that had no rails and no rails down the stairs, and she recoiled at the thought. 

“It was after dark when we left there, but we knew we would return the next day and bring the outside of this home back to life.” 

On Tuesday, the threesome returned, but with other recruits. One was Tommy Scott, a member of Capital City Christian Church where they all attend, who had lots of building experience from Habitat for Humanity and mission projects of the church.

“Tommy has so much talent, and he is such a giving man,” Wilson-Richardson said. “He and our guys did hardcore work.”

Hall echoes the sentiments about Scott. 

“I’ve known Tommy for years. We all go to church together. He didn’t hesitate when I called him.”

But in a laughable moment, Wilson tells a behind-the-scenes tale.

“We knew we were going to need lumber and materials to work on the deck. The Berkus crew told us a Lowe’s was nearby. But someone on the Berkus crew mentioned Butch worked for a 64 Lumber or something like that. We fell into laughter explaining it was 84 Lumber Liquidators, and that was definitely where we needed to start.”

Hall picks up the story saying Butch’s boss was more than willing to donate the supplies. 

“But then we realized we needed some plans, someone to draw this deck and steps to scale. We made another call to Butch’s boss and in less than 30 minutes he was on the scene.”

As Snyder continued working on the twins’ room, the Frankfort crew built the deck, set up the play set and created a safe, mulched area around it.

And in their spare time, Hall power-washed the house, and Wilson-Richardson and others pulled weeds and laid mulch to landscape around the house.

“Snyder was so generous; she personally purchased a large grill, patio table and chairs for the deck,” Wilson-Richardson said.

None of this part of the story ever made it to the television show.

But what did make the show was Wilson-Richardson’s last work on the project.

“Jennifer decided we needed to create a memory garden for the family, a place that would honor Karin and where the family could reflect on her life,” Hall said.

Wilson-Richardson knows all too well the loss of a beloved spouse and having young children. Her husband, Charlie, founder of Wilson Nurseries, was killed in a car accident Dec. 18, 2003. They had two daughters, Mary Catherine, 4, and Ella, 2.

“I just had two children, and I know how immobilizing Charlie’s death was for me. I couldn’t clean house, cook. I was overwhelmed, and so I knew what Butch was feeling.

“I guess you could say I was paying it forward; trying to give to a situation I understood like so many people gave to me when Charlie died.”

Mary Catherine, now 11, and Ella, 9, joined their mother at the Blankenship home helping where needed.

“About that deck, Charlie was a practical man. The first thing he would have said was ‘you’re going to install a $10,000 play set and the kids have no way to get to it,’” Wilson-Richardson said, explaining that his words still ring in her ears.

Wilson-Richardson remarried in January, and Jeremy now works alongside her.

“It took a long time for me, and I know it will for Butch, but in the meantime I wanted to do everything we could to help him get back in his home with the children.”

So Vernon Sims at Wilson’s designed a memory garden. Karin loved the color pink and butterflies, so the group created the design and filled it with pink flowers and bushes that attract butterflies.

Then Wilson-Richardson placed a bench beside it.

Hall called Kelli Morgan back in Frankfort and asked her to get a plaque made and inscribed “I will always love you,” words from Karin’s favorite song by Dolly Parton.

In the Berkus show last week, Dolly Parton appeared with him, after he called her about what they were doing.

“How could I not come?” Parton said crying, after she watched the taped film clips from the work.

Berkus flew Blankenship, 7-year-old Hayden and Blankenship’s sister, Jessica Cornett, to New York to appear on the show. They had no idea Parton would be part of it.

Blankenship and his sister brought Berkus and the audience up to date on the lives of the family including the boys’ successful return to school and their return home, after the reveal.

But the floodgates opened for Blankenship when Parton appeared. He hugged the star and uttered disbelief at her being there. Parton greeted Cornett and Hayden, but then she and Blankenship embraced again, both of them in tears.

There was not a dry eye in the audience when Parton sang “I Will Always Love You” for Karin.

But for Wilson-Richardson and Hall and the staff at Wilson Nurseries, the tears came again when Blankenship, Hayden and Evan appeared sitting on the bench at the memory garden.

“Of everything that was done here,” Blankenship spoke to the cameras, “This means the most.”

Blankenship explained later that the garden will be a forever reminder for the boys that their mother will not be forgotten.

“This will be the place where we go to talk when they have questions,” he said. “This will be where we go to cry when we miss her and to laugh when we remember the incredible mother and wife she was.”

Hall said that when they were first approached to donate the play set, they were told it would be good publicity for them.

“Once we got there, publicity was never given another thought,” he said explaining why the event was not publicized in Frankfort.

“This was our labor of love for a neighbor in need.”

Wilson-Richardson said her reward came knowing Blankenship was so pleased with the memory garden.

“We did this for the glory of God,” she said. “It was not about us.”

 

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