Though April 16, 1998, is not a day Katherine Thacker can remember, it is one that shaped her whole life.
On that day, her father Brandon Thacker, a Kentucky Alcoholic Beverage Control investigator, was in an undercover convoy driving from Paducah to Henderson, Kentucky, with three other investigators.
Brandon noticed an erratic driver and radioed that he would initiate a traffic stop. In an instant, the erratic driver passed Brandon’s vehicle, rolled down his window and fired several rounds, fatally wounding Brandon.
Brandon was just 27 years old. His wife, Jennifer, was 26, and Katherine was 18 months.
Twenty-one years later, God has used the worst in Katherine’s life to show her His faithfulness and grace. She shares the hope of Christ with other families who, too, have lost a loved one in the line of duty.
From grief to giving back
Growing up, Katherine only knew her dad through photos and home videos.
“My mom took so many videos of me and my dad when I was a baby,” Katherine said. “I remember sitting in front of our little square TV, watching them and forming my own memories of my dad. I would dream about him all the time. I couldn’t wait to go to bed every night because I knew I was going to spend time with my dad.”
It wasn’t until she grew older that the grief of losing her dad began to set in.
“Others kids would say, ‘My dad does this, or my dad does that,’” Katherine said. “When friends would ask me what my dad did, I would say, ‘Oh, my dad’s in heaven.’ My mom made sure as I grew older that I knew who my dad was, how much he loved me and where he was now. My grief was so much different from my mom’s; it was slower and more difficult to understand at first, but it was still there.”
Katherine’s mom felt unimaginable grief.
“The night before Brandon died, I remember sitting in my bedroom, lifting my hands and praising God for all the good things he had gifted us with,” Jennifer said. “Our marriage was great, Brandon and I were both in jobs that we enjoyed, Katherine was growing and healthy. When I got the news the next day, I couldn’t help but think, ‘God, I was praising you. How could you take my husband away from me?’”
But Jennifer slowly worked through her grief and continued to lean on her faith in God, believing that somehow, He would bring good from her husband’s death.
After losing Brandon, Jennifer founded the Kentucky chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS).
According to its mission statement, “Concerns of Police Survivors Inc. and the Kentucky Chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) provides resources to assist in the rebuilding of the lives of surviving families and affected co-workers of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty as determined by federal criteria.”
For Jennifer, it was a small way to walk alongside other widows and families who had endured the same loss and hardship she had.
“Our life became helping these families,” Katherine said. “I would spend every summer at camp with other kids who had lost a parent. It seemed like all of my friends had lost a parent.”
Katherine and Jennifer spend much of their lives helping other families find hope and help after such a devastating loss.
A life changed
All the while, Katherine was struggling to understand how a good God could take away her dad.
“I grew up going to church, and I had heard the Gospel many times, but my ears weren’t open to hearing it,” she said. “As soon as I was old enough to stay home on Sunday, I stopped going to church.”
Katherine said that high school became a “numbing game,” filled with parties, toxic relationships and bad decisions.
But at the end of her junior year, a group of her friends encouraged her to go to Bible & Beach, Southeast Christian Church’s annual High School Ministry conference in Florida.
Her mom was hesitant. Money was tight, they were relatively unfamiliar with Southeast and Katherine wasn’t necessarily enthusiastic about going.
“I was not excited to go,” Katherine recalled. “But when my mom went to pay the deposit, she accidentally paid the full amount. She took that as a sign that I was supposed to go.”
Katherine remembers sitting in the back of the bus, arms crossed, the whole way to Florida.
But once there, God intervened.
During one of the sessions, Southeast Associate Pastor Matt Reagan shared stories of hardship from his childhood. As Katherine began to reflect on the hardships in her life, questions started coming up.
“I thought, ‘How is he so joyful in the Lord after all he’s been through? How has he forgiven the Lord?’” she said.
Katherine knew she needed to talk to Reagan. She brought a list of questions.
“I realized that it wasn’t God who killed my dad, it was an evil, sinful man,” Katherine said. “I also realized that my unforgiveness and my blaming God was sin. God had never given up on me; I had given up on Him.”
That night, Katherine gave her heart to the Lord, and she returned from Bible & Beach with a new zeal for sharing the love of Christ with others.
As Katherine followed Jesus, she began to forgive the man who murdered her father.
A year after Bible & Beach, Katherine had the opportunity to meet that man’s family.
“It was surreal,” she said. “I know that it was only by God’s grace that I was able to sit in the same room as them and tell them I had forgiven him.”
After accepting Jesus, Katherine’s life did a total 180.
She let go of toxic relationships, no longer had the desire to go to parties and desperately wanted her friends to know the same God she did. Because she knew she didn’t want to fall back into her old way of life and wanted to continue growing in her faith, she transferred to Christian Academy of Louisville for high school and went on to study at Liberty University in Virginia.
Words of Worth
When she got to Liberty, Katherine soon recognized that her school wasn’t doing anything to support families of fallen officers.
She decided to do something.
“At first, I wanted to start a scholarship,” Katherine said. “Liberty is pretty expensive, and I thought it would be great to give students who have lost a parent in the line of duty a chance to receive a great, Christian education.”
Katherine met with university administrators, who said starting a scholarship was a long, arduous process, and it would be best to start an event to build credibility.
Words of Worth was born.
Katherine worked with faculty, other students, local vendors and organizations that serve families of fallen officers like Concerns of Police Officers and the Officer Down Memorial Page to start Words of Worth, a letter-writing campaign.
Katherine and around 100 other students gathered to write more than 300 letters of encouragement, sent with Christmas ornaments to families who had lost a loved one.
Over the last three years, the event has continued to grow, even after Katherine graduated from college this May.
“My heart only continues to grow for the law enforcement community,” Katherine said. “It means everything to me to be able to come alongside a family and let them know they’re not alone, and that God deeply loves and cares for them.”
Katherine now works at Southeast in its Events Ministry. She helps people connect to Jesus and one another by helping coordinate events like Shine, the prom-like event for adults with disabilities, and others.
Katherine is still connected to the Words of Worth event at Liberty, and recently began serving on the board of directors for the Officer Down Memorial Page.
“I can’t even begin to describe how proud I am of Katherine,” Jennifer said. “I’m grateful to have been able to have a front-row seat to all that God is doing in her life. She cares about people so much, and has such a big heart for others. Watching her grow into a Godly woman is all I could have ever asked for.”
Katherine owes all of her passion for fallen officers to the grace of God and the example of her mom.
“I cannot even begin to put into words how much respect and honor I have for my mom,” Katherine said. “I know that it’s only by the grace of God that she has been able to do all the good she’s done in the last 20 years. I don’t know how she was able to work full-time, raise me well and still give so much to families like us, but I can never repay her for the passion and the hope she’s instilled in me.”