OPRF Wheel Throwing Club students created 1,000 bowls to be used for the Empty Bowls event this Friday. | Photo by Christina Rorres

By any measure, this year’s Empty Bowls fundraising event is significant. It’s the 15th anniversary of it being held at Oak Park and River Forest High School. The Wheel Throwing Club, which puts on the event from start to finish, created a record number of bowls. And, perhaps most significant, the art teacher who supports the club and event, Pennie Ebsen is retiring this spring after 18 years at OPRF.

The event, this Friday evening and open to the community, raises funds for local and international hunger relief efforts.

Wheel Throwing Club, which ranges in size from 30 to 50 students, meets once per week and starts in the fall with experienced potters teaching those new to the craft. Then, an all-night marathon is held to create as many bowls as possible. This year’s all-nighter, held from 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. on Nov. 3, had a goal of 500 bowls, like previous years. But that number was far exceeded. 

“It’s the best bonding experience you can have,” said Gillian Bockus, a senior and co-president of the Wheel Throwing Club. “We knew we broke the record at midnight.” 

The 16 students went on to make 1,000 bowls by 7 a.m. Two students were in a race, according to Ebsen, and made 100 bowls each. 

“Everyone knows every bowl they create makes a difference — the more you make, the more donations,” said John Cundari, Wheel Throwing Club co-president and OPRF senior. “Even being tired, with wrinkly hands, we’d find the energy and kept it going through the night.”

Another 250 bowls were made at a Community Bowl-a-Thon and still more at other Wheel Throwing Club meetings. The club worked on decoratively glazing the bowls through February. And the kilns have been firing twice per week to complete the bowls.

All these bowls are to serve attendees who, for a $10 to $15 donation, receive a hand-crafted bowl and dine on a choice of soup and bread provided by local restaurants. There is also a silent auction. The food and auction items are procured by the Wheel Throwing Club students who call local vendors. 

These students also take on jobs, such as serving bread and soup, and wiping tables and washing bowls so people can get seconds. Any monetary tips they receive go right to the charities that are supported by the event, the OPRF Food Pantry, Housing Forward and Global Alliance for Africa, which all put the money into funds for hunger. In recent years, $12,000 was raised and 800 to 1,000 people attended. Empty Bowls 2018 is being held this Friday.

Ebsen said that coming to the event can help participants remember there are people all over the world who have empty bowls for dinner on their tables. It is also a way for teens to do something for someone else.

“High school students want to do a lot of good things, given the opportunity,” Ebsen said. “They want to make a difference in the world.”

Gillian said it is a nice feeling to make a difference as teenagers and she supports the Empty Bowls mission, but she is also involved because she really loves clay.

For John, who teaches many of the beginning wheel throwing students, his favorite part has been “seeing so many people coming together” especially when there is a lot of separation in other communities.   

This year, the OPRF Graphic Design Club pitched in, designing the Empty Bowls poster and T-shirt, which will be on sale at the event. 

But, for the Wheel Throwing Club students, part of this year’s event is a tribute to their retiring teacher, who coaches them through Empty Bowls and their wheel throwing craft so they can take the lead. 

“We want to make this the biggest and best Empty Bowls ever,” John said. “I want her to see all of what she’s created in such an amazing way.”

Empty Bowls is Friday, Feb. 23 from 6 to 8 p.m., South Cafeteria, Oak Park and River Forest High School, 201 N. Scoville Ave., Oak Park. Donation of $15; $10 for students.

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