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Empty Bowls event raises money to fight childhood hunger in Bartow

The organizers of the Empty Bowls Project know hunger is not just a problem in poor Third World countries.

Adairsville High art teacher and potter Jayme Laney started the fundraiser for the Backpack Buddies program in 2011 to help combat the problem of childhood hunger in Bartow County.

“In 2015, there are still at-risk students in our community who go home to food insecurity each day,” he said. “As an educator, I see firsthand the benefits of the Backpack Buddies program. The experts say, ‘If our basic needs are met, we are able to be more successful in many ways.’ We want to support the Backpack Buddies program with our Bartow Empty Bowls Project.”

Paula Womack, school social worker for Cartersville City Schools, said more than one in four children — 28.3 percent — in Georgia battles hunger every day, which makes it difficult for them to succeed.

“Hungry children have trouble concentrating, get more headaches and infections, are more likely to be hospitalized and are less likely to perform well on athletic fields and in classrooms,” she said. “It's simply much harder for children at risk of hunger to thrive.”

The fifth annual Empty Bowls event will be Sunday from noon to 2:30 p.m. at the Cartersville Civic Center at 435 W. Main St.

“The Empty Bowls Project is a charitable event that celebrates art, music and food while supporting our school-age children with a necessity that many go without,” Laney said.

For $20, guests will receive a handmade ceramic bowl and can enjoy soups, stews, chili and other food from more than 10 local restaurants while being entertained by a slate of performers.

Restaurants that will be on site include Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse, Swheat Market, Moore’s Market, Louie’s Cafe, Sage Cottage, El Nopal Adairsville, J’s Simply Soul, CiCi’s, LongHorn Steakhouse, Wendy’s, Burger King and Emi-Lu’s Bakery.

Providing entertainment for the event will be Holly Nash, Natalie Goodwin, Aria and Josh Starr, Alayna Roeser and others.

Potters from all over have volunteered to make the ceramic bowls that will be given to each person attending the event.

“We have over 500 bowls made by local potters and some from afar, like Ronnie Payne, Triny Cline, Gail Freeman’s Spring Place Pottery, Sgt. Norm Vik, Greg Burchell, Natalie Goodwin, Erin Spangler, Suzanne Hill, Matthew Porter, Brynn Dexter, Whitney Rupp, Kerri and John Howard, Katie Howard, Bridgette Ballard and my family, including Jim, Faye [and] Katie Laney. Also art students at White Elementary [and] Adairsville elementary, middle and high schools.”

Laney started the grassroots effort to raise money and awareness in the battle against hunger in Bartow County after learning about it from a college professor.

“In 2005, Natalie Goodwin and I were getting our Master’s of Education from Lesley University, and a professor shared the Empty Bowls Project with us,” he said, noting the project was founded in 1990-91 in Michigan. “We knew then we needed to bring this to Bartow County, Georgia. It took a few years of planning and waiting for the right combination of people to get behind the idea. So, our first event was in September of 2011.”

Since that inaugural event, $46,574 has been raised and donated to Backpack Buddies, including $10,000 from last year’s event, Laney said.

“The first year, our goal was $6,000, and every year since then, it has been $10,000,” he said. “So the more people who choose to come enjoy some of the best food Bartow has to offer under one roof, the more money we raise. One hundred percent of your $20 goes to Backpack Buddies. The artists give, the restaurants give, the volunteers give, the entertainers give, and the community members who donate the $20 for the ticket gives, so everybody gives in the process, and the children in the Backpack Buddies program receive. It really is great to see so many people playing a role in fighting hunger here in our community.”

Empty Bowls represents something people in Bartow County do best — “collaboration among members from all different walks of life to make the life of another better, specifically for this event, the life a school-age child better,” Womack said.

“... [Laney] rallied all his artistic friends, even some who were just learning the art of pottery, to make bowls with the idea of selling the bowls for $20 each,” she said. “In return, not only does the donor receive a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece of pottery, but also lunch from local eateries in town. Many local restaurants are donating their time and food to provide lunch on Sunday. It is such a win-win, not only for the donor but, more importantly, for the 165 city school students who receive a bag of food each week.”

Backpack Buddies is a collaborative effort of churches, businesses and individuals, organized by Church at The Well in Cartersville, that provides backpacks full of food for Bartow County and Cartersville students in need.

“Backpack Buddies packs seven meals and a snack in a backpack for students to take home for the weekend,” Laney said. “These students have been identified by school counselors and teachers, and then they are asked if they want to participate in the program. With parent’s approval, volunteers bring food to the schools by Friday for children to take home for the weekend.”

According to Womack and Kelly Whitmire, homeless liaison for Bartow County Schools, backpacks were given to 665 students in city and county schools last Friday.

“Approximately 625 city and county students qualified as homeless under the McKinney Vento Homeless Act in the 2014-15 school year,” Womack said. “The city and county both have similar free and reduced lunch numbers, around 58 percent.”

Statewide, more than 700,000 children are at risk of being hungry and are not getting the food they need to lead active, healthy lives, Womack said.

“Our kids aren’t hungry because we lack food or because of a lack of food and nutrition programs,” she said. “Our children are hungry because federal food and nutrition programs that serve children living in poverty and families struggling to make ends meet are frequently underutilized by many of those who are eligible. The most effective way to reduce childhood hunger in the state is to improve the number of eligible families participating in these already-established programs and to encourage community members to get involved to address the issue.”

Laney said he expects to see at least 500 people at the civic center during the course of Sunday’s 2 1/2-hour Empty Bowls event.

“It is a come-and-go-as-you-please event, so all 500 probably will not be there all at once,” he said. “I am very thankful and blessed to be a part of a project that so many people give to each year. I am impressed and proud to live in a community that cares about each other enough to fight hunger here locally.”

Tickets are available from local school counselors, Spring Place Pottery in downtown Cartersville or at the door the day of the event.

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