Wahconah's Empty Bowls Dinner strives to stock local food pantries

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DALTON — Wahconah Regional High School National Honor Society member Dayton Kozlowski says he had never seriously thought about the scale of hunger in the region until he and some of his fellow chapter members recently helped sort out some two-and-a-half tons of potatoes and squash for The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

"There are a lot more people in Western Massachusetts than you think who do not have meals every day," he said.

According to the food bank's data, more than 223,000 people in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties struggle with food insecurity — hunger and/or lack of access to sources of nutritious and good quality food. About 15 percent, or 33,450 of those children, women and men live and struggle with meal time in Berkshire County.

"It was a good experience seeing so many people [at the food bank] helping out. We saw a bunch of volunteers," Kozlowski said. "There are small things anyone can do to help."

On Sunday night, he and his 64 of his other National Honor Society chapter members from Wahconah hosted a rather big event to help the cause. The students worked in shifts to hold the chapter's fourth annual "Empty Bowls Dinner" to benefit area food programs that help nourish community members in need.

Empty Bowls events happen all over the world in various ways, but with the common purpose of raising funds to support community food banks and meals programs. The events combine art, food and activism.

In this case, guests purchased tickets to a potluck dinner buffet held Sunday in the parish hall of the Dalton United Methodist Church. Admission was $15 per person or $25 per family, and each guest was treated to food prepared by the Wahconah National Honor Society members and their families or donated by local stores and businesses. A total of 150 individual and 54 family tickets were sold to benefit area food programs.

After being served meals, desserts and soft drinks by the National Honor Society members, guests could take their tickets over to a table filled with ceramic bowls of all shapes, sizes and colors and choose one to take home. The empty vessel serves as a symbol that not every one of their neighbors has a full plate on a regular basis.

"We think it's a marvelous idea, and a marvelous project for the kids to get involved in," said Chuck St. John of Dalton, who attended the Empty Bowls Dinner with his wife, Helena. The couple said they were invited by their neighbor, Nick Schneider, a senior and National Honor Society member.

"The goal of this program is not to just sell tickets to your close family members, but to reach out to your neighbors and other people in the community to come to this," Schneider said.

"We need to encourage people to fill empty seats and sit together," David Dahari explained to a group of students as they were setting up. "This is part of what this is about, building a community."

Dahari co-advises the Wahconah National Honor Society chapter with Debbie Kowalczyk. His wife, Brandi Dahari, teaches at Berkshire School in Sheffield. Brandi and her ceramics students hand-build and donate the bowls for the event; a project that began last spring.

"My students know that if they have free time, they can throw a bowl for charity. It's a good way for them find a purpose while they build their skills too," Brandi Dahari said.

David Dahari said that in addition to learning about the scope and scale of hunger, the National Honor Society students "drive this event. They prepare the food, organize and publicize the event, sell tickets and usher and serve meals to guests."

Chapter members Alexis Kays, Noelle Frederick and Jillian Gaudette were the lead organizers of the event, successfully soliciting Panera Bread to donate fare for the bread baskets put out at each table.

"Every member contributes something," said co-adviser Debbie Kowalczyk. She said that the Empty Bowls Dinner exemplifies the power of collaboration to address a cause, based on a simple idea.

Four years ago, a Wahconah National Honor Society member pitched the idea of an Empty Bowls Dinner after having attended one in a nearby town. "How neat is it that this even, started by a student, is now part of the fabric of our community," Kowalczyk said.

Senior and National Honor Society member Laiken Cornwell-L'hote took part in her second Empty Bowls Dinner on Sunday, and noticed that many of the guests attended the previous year.

"I like doing this event because it creates a lot of awareness and spreads the word. At any given time there's someone who doesn't know where their next meal will be coming from, and that could be your neighbor or friend, or you," she said.

More than 20 percent of Western Massachusetts residents looking to food banks to help alleviate their hunger needs are children and teenagers, ages 18 and younger. One in five children under the age of 5 are under-nourished, according to the students' research.

Wahconah National Honor Society President Hannah Rogers said that's why Empty Bowls is an event students want to continue to organize year after year. "This is an issue a lot of people still don't know about, and it keeps growing," she said. "For us, the knowledge of these statistics come with the want to help."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.

Up next ...

The Wahconah Regional High School chapter of the National Honor Society is a student community service organization. This year, the group has chosen to adopt the Massachusetts branch of Best Buddies International to support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This Saturday, Dec. 16, the Wahconah National Honor Society will host a Holiday Pancake Breakfast to benefit the Best Buddies program. Breakfast will be served from 8 to 11 a.m. at the First Congregational Church, 514 Main St., in Dalton. Tickets are $7 per person, available for purchase at the door.


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