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Carefully crafted bowls fill hearts with love, help, food

October 27, 2021 at 10:48 a.m.
Sally Carroll/Special to The Weekly Vista These specially crafted bowls are part of the Benton County Empty Bowls project. Volunteers make the bowls, then donate the gross profits to several local food banks. For information, visit www.bcemptybowls.org.

Phillip Calkins' hands carefully crafted pottery bowls as he launched a project to help feed the hungry.

"The first 700 bowls, I touched every single one of them," he said on Saturday, Oct. 16, from under a small tent beside Wishing Spring Gallery.

Fast forward 23 months from those first bowls, and Calkins is heading up a local nonprofit that is scrambling to keep up with demand.

Purchasing a handcrafted ceramic bowl to help feed the hungry really resonates with people from all walks of life.

"Some people buy one every year," he said. "Some people save theirs for special things. People really feel like they are making a difference."

Calkins, Dave Johnson and Heather Grills formed the Benton County Empty Bowls project, a 501(c)(3) organization, in 2019. The group makes and sells ceramic bowls. Funds are then donated to local food banks.

A retired certified public accountant, Calkins relies on his past business experience to head up marketing efforts and recruiting help. A potter himself, Calkins now oversees the monstrous effort that is making serious headway in eradicating area hunger concerns.

In 23 months since its inception, the Benton County Empty Bowls organization has donated $27,000 to the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank in Bethel Heights. That equates to almost one-quarter of a million meals, Calkins said.

The all-volunteer effort supports food banks in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri. Administrative expenses are covered through donations. Calkins also has a grant, secured by KeHE, a national distributor of organic foods.

Volunteers donate 100 percent of the gross profits from bowl sales.

The nonprofit sells about 20 bowls a week, at $25 a pop. It takes some time and a great deal of finesse to create the bowls, which are made and fired in The Clay Studio by Wishing Spring Gallery.

After forming the bowl, it's fired and then glazed -- up to three times. Some of the bowls have a third firing if they have a decal placed inside, he said.

Though there are similar empty bowl organizations across the country, Calkins said the Bella Vista-based group is the only one to ship bowls for free to any location.

"We operate 365 days a year," he said.

On Sundays, Calkins shows and sells the bowls at the Bella Vista Farmers Market, along with cookbooks and T-shirts. His efforts on Oct. 10 raised $1,000, he said.

On that Sunday, one customer walked up and ordered three bowls and three cookbooks, he added.

For teacher Tiffany Hastings, the bowl is a very visual reminder about the real problem of hunger.

The Cooper Elementary fourth grade teacher said the bowl is a vessel for a hot lunch at school -- but more importantly, serves as a symbol to teach children about giving.

She shows her bowl to her students, explaining the mission and how people can help. "What would it be like to not have a meal?" she asks her students.

Her students have overwhelmingly responded. "Kids always want to help," she said.

Food drives and other messages about giving thanks this time of year also tie into helping others, she said.

For Ann Ames, the beauty of the bowls is indescribable. The former Utah resident who has retired here had three bowls but thought she needed three more. Now, she has enough to host "six people out on my patio," she said. "You must plan for these things."

Ames is an active potter at The Clay Studio. She's amazed at the quality of artisanship that goes into each piece.

"I can't replicate them," she said. "They're pretty cool."

As the project gathers momentum, Calkins plans to find 10 more potters to keep up with demand.

His passion fuels his work.

"I feel that I am going to feed a child who is going to grow up and find the cure for Alzheimer's," he said. "We have to feed the children."

"It gives me purpose."

Sally Carroll/Special to The Weekly Vista 
Phillip Calkins shows off a heart-shaped bowl, an original design that is special to him. Calkins has an artifical aorta, and felt lead to design a unique bowl for the Benton County Empty Bowls mission. The potter and retired certified public accountant heads up marketing and recruiting for the Bella Vista-based nonprofit.
Sally Carroll/Special to The Weekly Vista Phillip Calkins shows off a heart-shaped bowl, an original design that is special to him. Calkins has an artifical aorta, and felt lead to design a unique bowl for the Benton County Empty Bowls mission. The potter and retired certified public accountant heads up marketing and recruiting for the Bella Vista-based nonprofit.
Sally Carroll/Special to The Weekly Vista 
The Benton County Empty Bowls project offers a variety of colors of the handcrafted bowls, including some special ones that have an imprinted saying. Organizers will host a soup drive-thru event on Nov. 13 at St. Theodore's Episcopal Church in Bella Vista. All proceeds go to fight local hunger efforts.
Sally Carroll/Special to The Weekly Vista The Benton County Empty Bowls project offers a variety of colors of the handcrafted bowls, including some special ones that have an imprinted saying. Organizers will host a soup drive-thru event on Nov. 13 at St. Theodore's Episcopal Church in Bella Vista. All proceeds go to fight local hunger efforts.
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Organizers will host an Empty Bowls Soup Drive Thru Event fundraiser from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13, at St. Theodore’s Episcopal Church, 1001 Kingsland Road.

Each bowl will be sold at $25, which enables the patron to receive a container of the soup of their choice. Patrons will have several varieties from which to choose.

Anyone who has purchased a bowl this year at a previous venue may attend the fundraiser as well.

Additional bowls will be available at the event.

Calkins and Dave Johnson formed the Benton County Empty Bowls project, a 501(c)(3) organization, in 2019. The local organization was formed two years ago, but the original Empty Bowls began in 1990 when a Michigan High School art teacher involved students to make bowls and then sell them at a soup event.

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