Leah McCarthy

Rebounding From Tragedy and Paying it Forward

December 2023 IssueLeahMcCarthy 1223

by Edwina Hoyle
Photography by Cassidy Dunn Photography

In March of 2020, Leah McCarthy, owner of Downtown Catering Company, was at the pinnacle of success. “I was at the height of my business—successful, a high achiever, caring for both my mother, who had dementia, and three kids. Then my life fell apart.”

The Covid pandemic struck America like a sledgehammer. Events were cancelled, schools were closed, and kids transitioned to online learning. Churches held virtual services, and funerals were suspended. The hospitality industry was hit especially hard, and Downtown Catering Company was no exception.

Brides called to cancel their weddings. The large catering contracts Leah had for 15 years at the Master’s and Heritage Golf tournaments were called off. “Within about three months of cancel, cancel, cancel, we lost $1 million in revenue,” Leah said. “At the same time, my mother died. She was my biggest support, my cheerleader, and the ultimate grandmother.”

“I dug my heels in and tried to keep it together,” Leah said. “But I lost control of my life. A lot of food and beverage staff lost their jobs. It was bad. Really bad. So, I turned my grief into helping others.” She formed the Hungry Heart Restaurant Worker Relief fund to help local hospitality workers get food. “Ten months later my father passed.”

Leah said she and her husband weren’t working. They had no events. “We went from full calendars to nothing. So we bought an RV and traveled a lot with the kids. In the midst of all that quiet, the emotional stuff really hit me. I was riddled with anxiety, and I couldn’t keep digging in. Then later in 2021, I got Covid and put myself in isolation. The world felt very scary, and I was out of control in work and family issues, so I kept myself in isolation.

“Then a friend came to me. She said it was easy to be a Christian when things go well, and much harder when things get tough. She sent me to a Christian counselor who turned me around and got me reconnected to my faith. Then she got Covid and passed away. It was comforting to be in her presence, and I felt her loss. She was put in my life for a reason—to help me follow God through difficult times.”

Leah soon realized her mental health was just as important as her physical health. “Mental health issues don’t discriminate. Everyone can have issues—it’s an epidemic. And it’s become my passion,” she said.

Leah became certified as a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) helpline specialist and works every week taking calls on a nationwide hotline to provide emotional support, provide resources, and prevent suicides. Soon she will begin making presentations about mental health issues to middle schools and others up to age 35 through a new program called “End the Silence” through NAMI SC. Leah has also enrolled in graduate school to earn a degree in mental health counseling.

“My goal is now education and advocacy,” she said. “I started a mental wellness fund for staff to provide money for treatment if someone can’t afford it. When staff are healthy mentally and physically, they show up better. I love the hospitality business and want to integrate my passion for mental health with business—to empower CEOs and owners to provide resources and help to their employees. A lot of high-functioning people are masters at hiding things, so people don’t see their struggles. They want to push through, and if they commit suicide, people are surprised. I want to break these barriers.

“We’re in a world where it’s not okay to be uncomfortable. There is beauty in discomfort, there’s resilience. It’s difficult, but there’s so much beauty on the other side. I have so much more resilience. I never took risks, I hated to lose, but life isn’t always in our control.”

Leah celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Downtown Catering last month. She was also named 2023 Bluffton Business Woman of the Year. The Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce received 14 nominations, which were reviewed by chamber members from other parts of the country. The fusion of two passions—the hospitality industry and supporting mental health—tipped the scales for her.

“This award now means so much more to me. If I’d won it before, it would just be another award. Now I’m excited. It’s not just another thing to put on a resume, but an opportunity to go out and speak to business owners, teaching that mental health doesn’t have to be scary, no one is alone.”



• Leah absolutely loves college football, rainbow sprinkles, and can’t function
without dark roast coffee.

• If Leah’s not working, she can be found taking a Peloton bike bootcamp class at home with the volume WAY UP!

• Leah appeared as a dancer in the very first show on stage at the Arts Center, “Crazy For You!” and the first-ever showing of “A Chorus Line.”

• She loves the mountains and taking RV trips with her family and two dogs.