For more than 10 years now, every first Friday of March, from 6 to 8 p.m., the Empty Bowls Community Dinner at Oak Park and River Forest High School begins.

The annual event is aimed at ending hunger. Participants pay $15, $10 for students with IDs, in exchange for a hand crafted ceramic bowl. Once they have chosen their favorite bowl, attendees queue up in a long Depression-era-like soup line to be served two ladles of a local restaurant chef’s specialty soup in their one-of-a-kind, take-away bowl.

The annual grassroots event was founded by OPRF art teacher Pennie Ebsen, and is sponsored by her after school Wheel Throwing Club. Their verve and dedication is complemented by the volunteerism of local potters, chefs who donate gallons of soup, and a corps of community volunteers who return year after year to help.

Long after Empty Bowls ends, in someone’s cupboard the ceramic urn will not only be a memento of a night well spent, but also a continuing reminder of the world wide issues of hunger.

Internationally, Empty Bowls has become the collective genius of every group which has chosen to stage one. To date, events, such as the one in Oak Park, have cropped up across the United States and in at least a dozen other countries, raising many millions of dollars that the organizers donate to hunger-fighting organizations.

In Oak Park, this event usually raises between $10,000 and $12,000, which is donated to West Suburban PADS, Oak Park Food Pantry, and Global Alliance for Africa, Ebsen says.

“We kind of have a goal to make 1,000 bowls, so we probably involve a good 25 to 30 students, and probably 20 professional potters from the community,” says Ebsen.

Former OPRF student Bridget Doherty was apresident of the Wheel Throwing Club and Empty Bowls project in 2010.

“As a freshman, I didn’t know about pottery, and I wasn’t even an art person, but there was a group of people who lived here in the art room, and they just welcome you in, and then you get hooked and you are in here all the time, or whenever you can be, making pots for Empty Bowls,” says Doherty, now Ebsen’s student teacher.

In addition, Ebsen adds, many of the bowls are often worth much more than the $15 entry fee.

“I actually get pretty emotional about this. I think it is pretty special to be able to do something that you love, and almost feel passionate about, and be able to use that to be of service in some way to others,” says Ebsen.

For Doherty being back in the art room helping students create bowls for this year’s fundraiser on March 6, 2015, means she has come full circle.

“Empty Bowls is the reason I am standing in front of you today as a student teacher, because by being a part of it, I had the ability to make something, and then share it with someone else who can use what I had made to have a meal, and then give a meal to someone else through their donation,” Doherty says. “Well, that is just incredible. And, why wouldn’t you want to come back and do that every year?”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....