Fundraiser to fill many 'Empty Bowls'

Soup kitchen to host annual benefit
By Stina Sieg | Feb 27, 2012
Photo by: Sarah Wells Rolland There will be plenty of empty bowls to chose from at this Saturday's "Empty Bowl Dinner," including a few by Bethel artists Sarah Wells Rolland. Rolland is one of many local ceramists who give their work free of charge to the benefit.

This Saturday, the Open Door will get one of its biggest financial boosts of the year, one bowl of soup at a time. “The Empty Bowl Dinner,” now in its 11th year, always draws hundreds of people, many of whom might never share a meal in the nonprofit’s soup kitchen otherwise.

The fundraiser, which goes from 3 to 7 p.m., has a simple concept: Buy a meal so that others may also eat. For $20, diners not only get to chose a type of piping-hot soup but also a unique bowl, handmade and donated by a local potter, to take home.

This blending of art and good will — and a good meal — has always been popular, so much so that it shocked the nonprofit’s director, Perry Hines, in the beginning. At the first such event a decade ago, he was brand new to the job, and as he pulled up to work he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The line of people waiting to get in the dining hall was staggering, maybe 50 yards long.

“Oh, I just thought, ‘Goodness, is this what I think it is? Is this for here?’” Hines recalled.

To his surprise, he was right. The event ended up being a huge success, and has been ever since. Though extended hours now save diners from long lines, the fundraiser’s popularity has never waned. In fact, it has now moved into the status of tradition, with each year drawing a steady and varied stream of locals, drawn together by their desire to helpa. Hines estimates their generosity brings in anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 every year, meaning it makes thousands of meals for others possible.

“There’s a beautiful spirit that just emanates, a generous sprit that just comes through,” Hines said, describing “Empty Bowls” of the past. “People just love it.”

Charity-minded diners aren’t the only ones who keep the event going, however. Hines is quick to say that the real stars of the show are the people behind the scenes — the potters who make the bowls and the cooks who fill them.

Bob Hammock, who owns Hazelwood’s Good Earth Studio, does both. He actually came up with the idea for the event with fellow ceramist Phillip Johnson, and he has made a point to always lend his expertise on the pottery wheel and in the kitchen. Hammock not only donates several bowls every year but also helps organize the cooking crew, made up mostly of other artists.

“I love to cook and I’m a potter, and the two just go hand-in-hand,” he said.

Though he’s modest about his impact on the day, it’s clear that “Empty Bowl” wouldn’t work without the help of him and others. In addition to donating anywhere from 15 to 20 unique bowls to the annual event, he spends that morning, afternoon and evening in the Open Door’s kitchen. He doesn’t mind, however. He believes in its purpose far too much. The day always reminds him how many others feel the same.

“It’s a good feeling to see the community get together behind it, because we have a lot of people in need in this area,” he said, “and it’s a good thing that people come out to support them.”

So many of them might never need the Open Door's help but give to the cause anyway. That, as participating artist Sarah Wells Rolland sees it, is the morale thing to do. The Bethel resident believes her gesture of donating several bowls every year is a small one in the grand scheme of things, and she’s happy to do it. This time around, she has also convinced her fellow ceramists at The Village Potters in Asheville to do the same. Once they hear the cause, artists are always eager to help, she explained.

“When you’re asked to give pots to something that’s going to feed people who are hungry, nobody says no,” she said.

Rolland, like so many others part of the event, speaks with nothing but compassion of the people who rely on the Open Door daily. She knows that they’re not so different than anyone else, just perhaps going through a tougher time.

“It’s an incredible thing to be able to say you’ve never known hunger,” she said.

It’s also getting harder to come by these days, as Hines knows. He explained that as the world’s economic turmoil drags on, more and more people end up needing the support of the Open Door and other local agencies. While this creates pain for many, he also sees a more uplifting byproduct. The more people need help, the more people want to help. This heightened understanding of the needs of others is the silver lining, if there is one.

“I think there’s more people now than ever that are very much aware that, ‘I could be the one receiving the benefits of this charity,’” he said. “I’m of the opinion that it brings communities together.”

And that’s exactly what “Empty Bowl” does every year.

The “Empty Bowl Dinner” will take place from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at the Open Door, 32 Commerce St., in Waynesville. For more information, call 452-3846.