Grab a bowl and a bite for charity this Friday at Oak Park and River Forest High School as the Empty Bowls fundraiser is back. Buy a ticket at the door to enjoy a handmade bowl filled with soup from local restaurants. Proceeds from the event will be split among three aid organizations, allowing participants to feed their souls and their bodies in one fell swoop of a spoon.
Empty Bowls is a philanthropic movement by ceramic artists and craftsmen to combat world hunger and, while it wasn’t started at OPRF, this year marks a special milestone for the school. Friday will be its 20th annual Empty Bowls fundraiser. In preparation, OPRF ceramics students, led by wheel-throwing teacher Bridget Doherty, have spent months making bowls.
“We start making bowls as soon as the first day of school,” she said. “I still have some kids making bowls.”
Doherty and her students have spun almost 1,000 bowls on pottery wheels at the school, as well as at partnering local studios ViaClay and Terra Incognito. Doherty uses the school’s kiln to fire the bowls, turning them into a viable vessel for food that attendees can keep after the dinner event.
Come March 3, those souvenir bowls will be washed, filled with soup from local restaurants and handed over to attendees during the two-hour event, which starts at 6 p.m. in the high school’s newly renovated south cafeteria. Admission to the dinner is $20 for adults and $15 for children and students with identification. Tickets are available for purchase at the door. The proceeds will be split equally among Housing Forward, Beyond Hunger and the Global Alliance for Africa. The beloved event generally brings in about $10,000.
Soup, bread and time are being generously donated to the event by 20 area eateries and organizations, including Triton College’s hospitality industry administration department. OPRF student leaders do the leg work in contacting the restaurants for donations.
“The next step is to reach out to restaurants and remind them that we’re coming to pick up from them,” said OPRF junior Anna Miller, one of the Empty Bowls student leaders. “We’re going to pick up the soup the day of the event.”
This is the first time in two years that Empty Bowls will be held in person. The last time that happened was in Feb. 28, 2020 – just three weeks before the entire state shut down for COVID-19.
“It was wild,” Doherty recalled. “We were so amazed that we actually had this event and that we were in a room with, like, over 1,000 people.”
Unlike other events that fell by the wayside during the height of the pandemic years, Doherty kept Empty Bowls going without actually serving soup by selling students’ bowls online. She then orchestrated a sort of curbside pick-up operation for people to get their bowls, which came with a restaurant coupon book.
“This is a really important event, so it was not something where I was going to say, ‘No, we just won’t do it this year,’” said Doherty. “It was, ‘How will we make this happen?’”
Doherty and her students are looking forward to having a traditional Empty Bowls event again, where members of the community can eat alongside each other. Student volunteers will take tickets, dish up soup and make sure everyone is having a great time. Participating restaurants get a little advertising in during the event as well. Each soup has a placard next to it, identifying the restaurant it came from. Students will also be selling Empty Bowls T-shirts featuring the names of all the partnering businesses and restaurant donors.
“I’m really excited to see how it turns out because I haven’t seen an Empty Bowls in full swing in two years,” said student leader and senior Max Friedman.
Perhaps no one is more excited than Doherty, whose special fondness for Empty Bowls began when she herself was a student at OPRF. She threw bowls under the tutelage of much adored ceramics teacher Penny Ebsen, who organized the high school’s first ever Empty Bowls in 2003.
Empty Bowls grew with each subsequent year. Doherty took up the Empty Bowls mantle after Ebsen retired in 2018, having taught at OPRF for almost two decades. And while the event’s continued success is in no small part due to the hard work of students, volunteers, and OPRF faculty, Doherty believes it is the community, restaurants and residents alike, that makes Empty Bowls so special.
“It’s really due to the community,” she said. “The community is very supportive.”