The world recognizes her as the mother of Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence, but to Louisville, she’s Karen Lawrence: Wife of Gary Lawrence, mother of three successful children, loyal friend and fun-loving grandmother.
Karen was born and raised in Louisville and is an alumnus of the University of Louisville. In addition to being the proud matriarch of her beautiful family, she’s also the founder of Camp Hi-Ho in Simpsonville, a dedicated member of the Lawrence Family Foundation, a board member for the Louisville Orchestra and the Kentucky Film Commission, and an overall champion for children, as well as stray dogs and cats in need of a forever home. Karen is quite the daredevil, and she cites Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner as her comedic idols.
Let’s meet this week’s FACE of Louisville, Karen Lawrence.
Tell us about your family here in Louisville.
I have a brother and two sisters, and lots of nieces and nephews. My folks are 86 and still going strong. I met my husband through his father who was Dean of Students at the University of Louisville. My son Ben is a managing partner of Louisville Geek, an information technology company, and Blaine is the owner of Camp Hi-Ho. I also have six grandchildren.
What did you do after college?
I was a cheerleader at U of L, and I enjoyed gymnastics. I saw a need in the community for after-school programs since there weren’t any around, so I brought my gymnastics classes to the schools. This was an alternative for parents instead of using babysitters, having latch-key kids or running their children to programs on weekends. As the program expanded, I added an art component, karate and other activities. This was back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so I was kind of an original. I saw a need; plus, I didn’t want to put my own kids in daycare.
What inspired you to start Camp Hi-Ho?
I was holding camps at churches that were similar to what I was doing with the gymnastics and after-school programs. On Fridays, the fire department would come and hose the kids down. I would watch the kids and see that they were more interested in playing in the mud than doing anything else. I began thinking about our farm in Henry County and how much the kids would love playing in the mud there because we had plenty of it. That’s kind of how it got started. I brought my friends in to be the counselors. We moved the camp to Simpsonville later on; then we eventually sold it to Blaine when things started getting busy with Jennifer’s career.
What does Camp Hi-Ho offer?
Blaine has done a wonderful job with it. We have arts and crafts, horses, archery, a lake, fishing, kayaks, paddle boats, a fort and a place called Hammock City, where lots of hammocks are tied to trees, and kids can just hang out there all day and read or even daydream. There’s also a butterfly garden and a vegetable garden. There’s really something for everyone.
You’re also involved with animal rescue. How did that begin?
We’d cook food at camp, and stray dogs and cats were attracted to the smell. We started wondering what would happen to the animals if we weren’t there to feed them, so my friends and I would take them home on weekends. I spent thousands of dollars on them for neutering and vaccinations. I almost shut down until Dr. Oliver at Lyndon Animal Hospital saved the day and offered his services. The animals are at the camp in the Puppy Barn. The campers learn how to care for them and can even take them home for a night. If people want to adopt a puppy or kitten, those adoptions take place on Fridays.
How did the Lawrence Family Foundation begin, and what are the goals of the foundation?
When I was growing up, it was always important for our family to give back. I was just raised that way. With Jennifer’s notoriety, we had a bigger platform to have more exposure and raise more money, meaning we had more money to share. We raise money for programs and try to keep it in Louisville. [We fund] basically anything related to children. It could be something like starting an arts program for kids in the west end who don’t have the kind of opportunities that the kids in the east end have. We also work with hospitals and the Cancer Alliance Camp for children who have cancer. We hold a big fundraiser each year at Churchill Downs, called Awards in the Arts, to raise money. It includes cocktails and dinner, and we have artists performing or singing. It’s a great event.
What else are you involved with?
I’m going to be the comedian this year for the Gilda’s Club fundraiser. They bring in amateur comedians who get up on stage to raise money for the organization. I’ve also jumped out of an airplane to raise money, and I scaled down the side of the Marriott Hotel building downtown wearing a red cape while my grandchildren watched me from down below. That was for a fundraiser, too.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’ll do anything at least once. I’ll even eat stuff other people won’t. I once ate beetle larvae in Peru.
Your family has attended the Academy Awards several times and were there when Jennifer won an Oscar. What was that like?
It was a great experience, and it was really cool that we got to do that. It was exciting. When Jennifer won the Oscar it was definitely a proud mom moment.
Do you have any hobbies?
I play golf and tennis, and I like to travel. We went to Ireland last year to play golf. I like to take trips that involve adventure.
If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
I’d like to be a doctor. I always wanted to take care of people and do my best to fix a problem.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Live your life in a meaningful way. When you’re gone, what are you going to be remembered for? I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My grandchildren’s hugs, golf and my assistant, Marianne
Thank you to Karen for chatting with us, and thank you to Gretchen Bell for the gorgeous photos!
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