Mission Memphis Day 11: Memphis Empty Bowls Project

The Experience

Let me just tell you. I LOVE the Memphis Empty Bowls Project. By first year standards  By any standards, I’d call it a huge success. They had at least 60 volunteers with more waiting in the wings, the tickets sold out days before the event, the leftover soup was donated to families in need, they raised $18,000 to fight hunger in the Mid-South, and perhaps most importantly, they raised awareness about the staggering number of men, women and children whose bowls are empty every day.

When I first reached out to the team at the Memphis Empty Bowls Project, I got the chance to talk with Ashley Baker, their volunteer coordinator. Ashley did everything right – she got back to me right away, she was genuinely enthusiastic about the project, and she made me feel like a superhero for signing up to help.  In terms of the volunteers themselves, I have never seen such a positive, hard-working group of people! Even after the official shifts had ended, dozens of people stayed to help clean up. Ashley will probably tell you it’s because she bribed everyone with cookies (true story), but I’m sure the volunteers will tell you it’s because they felt helpful, invested, and appreciated. Based on this success and the fact that I met Ashley’s husband, mom, dad, and grandmother at the event, I would say that Ashley is a natural recruiter!

In the days leading up to the event, I also talked with one of the co-chairs, Sarah Ranson. I liked her right away. Maybe it comes with the name, but Sarah and I talked at length about issues related to hunger and access to food. I asked her about her hopes for the event and what message she wanted each person to take away. She said, “When you leave here with your empty bowl, we hope it reminds you of all the people who are food insecure.” A very simple, but very powerful message.

Memphis Empty Bowls Display

When I walked up the stairs at the Church Health Center, I turned the corner and saw rows and rows of beautiful handmade bowls. The team collected bowls from potters, artists, and students. In total, they had more than 300 one-of-a-kind bowls at the event. Each attendee had the opportunity to select a bowl to use at dinner.  Each person selected a bowl and brought it into the dining area where they could sample soup and bread from 14 different restaurants in the Memphis area. To see everyone who donated, check out their list of supporters.  After dinner, each person took their bowl home as a souvenir/reminder of all who go hungry each day.

Banner: 1 out of every 5 people in Shelby County experiences food insecurity.

I also want to commend the team for tying their mission into the event so seamlessly. I’ve been to many events where the volunteers and the guests are never fully clued in to the mission and the purpose behind the gala/race/party, etc.  Too often, everyone gets wrapped up in the event itself, and the spirit is forgotten. At Empty Bowls, there were reminders everywhere – from the banner at the front door and the mid-meal announcement, to the bowls themselves, the message was clear for the adults.

Many people brought their kids to the event, which is wonderful and I’d like to challenge them to go a step further: Use this event and the bowls themselves as a teaching opportunity. Try the message today. If they’re too young, try it again tomorrow. Try it again the next time you see the bowl. But starting young makes a big impression.  When I was about 8 years old, my parents talked to me very directly about who goes hungry and why. I was aware of our local food pantry. I had even helped collect the food, but I still needed them to connect the dots for me. (You can read the whole story in an earlier post: The Distance from Here to There). My parents did that for me at a young age, and I hope that the parents from this event will take this opportunity to teach their own children about philanthropy and empathy.

Thanks to the Empty Bowls team, there are at least 300 bowls in this city that will serve as long lasting reminders of how fortunate we are to be able to fill our own bowls and the responsibility we have to fill bowls for those who cannot fill their own. When I look at my own bowl from the event, I’ll think of all the people who go hungry each night and of all the parents who worry about how to feed their children. I’ll feel more grateful for all that I have and I’ll be even more motivated to fight hunger in Memphis. I hope your bowl does the same for you.

Thank you, Empty Bowls team, for all that you have done to feed Memphis!

How to Help

Join the team. The Memphis Empty Bowls team is looking to add a few good people to their long-term planning team. It’s a long term commitment, but very rewarding!

Paint, sculpt or donate a bowl! They are already collecting bowls for next year’s event. Every bowl donated can provide up to 40 meals!  If you’re new to the whole bowl making thing, you don’t have to make one from scratch. Check out their supporters page to see where you can paint and donate a bowl for just $10!

If you’re looking for ongoing volunteer opportunities in this area, consider volunteering at one of the many soup kitchens or food pantries in the Memphis area.  Consider one of the many outreach options at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Midtown, Memphis Union Mission, or the Mid-South Food Bank.

Sponsor or attend next year’s event. I’m sure next year will be even bigger and better! Check out their sponsorship page for more information.

If you want to know more about volunteering, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

What comes after the 30 Days of Mission Memphis?  Volunteer Bound! I’m traveling across the country to promote volunteerism and I want to take you with me!

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3 Responses to Mission Memphis Day 11: Memphis Empty Bowls Project

  1. Kayla J. Smith says:

    Hi, Sarah! This is Kayla from White Station High , your fellow soup server volunteer partner person lol. I just wanted to say that I LOVE your website. I think its amazing what you’re doing and that you’re making everyone publicy aware of the need to give back. This website has truly inspired me to continue volunteering and reaching out to the community. It was a joy meeting you and learning about your wonderful volunteering adventure. I hope you continue to inspire others as you successfully complete your journey. Next stop is to find the article about you in the Commercial Appeal. 🙂
    Best wishes- Kayla J. Smith

    • Kayla! It was great to meet you too! Thanks for your message and thanks for volunteering! Please keep me up to date on your volunteer adventures as well – I’d love to hear what you’re up to. I hope to see you again soon.

  2. Karen Brinck says:

    Sarah, Siouxland food bank has been doing Empty Bowls for about 8 years, it is a great project. Love reading about all your adventures. I think it is an awesome way to remind everyone there is a volunteer fit for everyone. Great job

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