Last August, in a pottery studio tucked in the ironworks of Bend’s industrial district, nine potters got together and threw 332 bowls in a matter of hours.

They were a group of talented local artists who participated in the “Pottery Games.” It was the kickoff for Empty Bowls, the signature annual fundraiser for the Central Oregon nonprofit, NeighborImpact. Hundreds more bowls were added to the collection and set out on display the day of the event, creating a cornucopia of soup bowls of every shape and color imaginable.

At the Pottery Games, Bill Earhart cleaned house, winning first prize for the most bowls made in ten minutes, the best bowl made blindfolded and the biggest bowl— made with five pounds of clay. The latter will be auctioned off at the event.

“There is a unique style for each bowl; some are even glazed by different potters,” says potter John Kinder.

Last year, Empty Bowls served soup in hundreds of bowls made by area locals (including well-known artists such as Steve Provence and a family of potters at Blue Spruce Pottery). Diners filled their bowls with gourmet soup provided by chef Julian Darwin of the Cascade Culinary Institute, and ate locally crafted bread and desserts. Live music and lively conversation sauntered along the lengthy tables at Central Oregon Community College’s Campus Center.

In its eleventh year this November, the fundraiser’s proceeds go to the basic human needs of NeighborImpact’s clients.

Kinder of Cindercone Clay Center, along with studio co-founder, Chad Fox, have been hosting the Pottery Games since its inception. “The biggest benefit for us potters is it gives us the chance to be out in the community, rather than in our little studios,” says Kinder, who annually donates many hours creating bowls for the fundraiser.

Empty Bowls is an event unlike any other, says Ida Hensley, who has been volunteering for five years. “You have people who come just for the bowls,” she notes. “Many have been collecting bowls since it started, and look forward to it every year.”

The intersection of art, gourmet food and charitable giving helps spread community awareness about NeighborImpact’s mission to break down economic barriers and end the cycle of poverty. Its food bank receives and distributes food from drives and the USDA to a network of more than forty local agencies. Its food recovery initiative collects unsalable produce, dairy and meat from local grocery stores and adds it to the bank of food that eventually gets consumed.

“The redistribution program is one of my favorite success stories,” says Chris Quaka, community relations administrator for NeighborImpact. “It keeps food out of landfills and puts it on people’s plates. It’s a total win-win.”

These programs are just slivers of NeighborImpact’s total reach in Central Oregon. The nonprofit operates a $14 million budget with more than 200 employees, and manages everything from HeadStart to home-buyer education classes, reaching 60,000 people a year.

“One out of five children in Deschutes County is living in poverty, one in four in Jefferson County, and one in three in Crook County,” says Quaka. “Having these bowls in our home is a constant reminder of how fortunate we are, and how we have to continue to help and give to our community. That is part of our mission at NeighborImpact, and the heart of Empty Bowls.”

Many potters are at the low end of the pay scale and may be a paycheck away from needing assistance themselves, says Kinder. “I may not always be able to pay my college loans,” he says, “but I can donate thousands of dollars in pottery to feed the hungry, and that is an awesome way to give back to the community.”

Empty Bowls in 2011

• Helped 448 children via its Head Start program

• Provided food for 18,000 people each month

• Weatherized 141 low-income homes

• Distributed more than 800,000 pounds of locally donated fresh meat, produce and dairy products

How You Can Help

Make a reservation for next year’s Empty Bowls‘ fundraiser, during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. 

Laurel Brauns
1859 Music Blogger | + posts

Laurel is a writer and a songwriter who lives in Portland and Bend, Oregon. She writes for a number of magazines, newspapers and blogs, and plays music for her night-job. She loves hearing about new music and projects around the state, so drop her a line to tell her about your band or album or invite her to a show. She has toured independently throughout the country, and has become a regional favorite with her band, the Sweet Harlots, an all-girl Americana project with deep roots in Bend, and big plans in Portland. You can learn more about her music on her website