MILLBURN, NJ - Families and students packed the cafeteria Thursday night, March 1 for the Millburn Middle School fundraiser, Empty Bowls. Many stayed and other new families arrived later for the subsequent Evening Of Excellence, which featured student artwork and schoolwork, some beautiful student-painted chairs, and a preview of the upcoming Middle School musical “13.” Proceeds go to The Community FoodBank of NJ, Down The Block LLC, and Eliminate Poverty Now. The donations totaled $3,875, the most in the three years of this event.

Presented by the SOAR and MASH Peer Leaders, the Empty Bowls dinner is an annual event based on the “Empty Bowls” model, applied in a service-learning context (www.emptybowls.net.) At the Middle School, the SOAR Peer Leaders create artistic ceramic bowls and then the MASH Peer Leaders design and print the program and serve the simple meal of soup and bread and cookies. Those attending choose one of the handmade bowls to use that evening, and later get to keep it as a reminder that there are always empty bowls in the world. 

Whole Foods Market in Union once again donated the soup and bread this year. Steven Saltzman, father of 8th grade twins Abigail and Charlotte, added his homemade lentil soup, which was a popular item. 

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The atmosphere was festive, with long tables upon which were placed small paper tents featuring photos of students making the bowls, and including the theme of the evening: “As our bowls are filled, let us remember those that remain empty.” 

It was revealing to talk with students attending and get a sense of different perspectives in ages and genders.

Of a group of eighth grade boys, one said he was attending to see his girlfriend, another to support the friend seeing his girlfriend, a third was there “for the food,” and the fourth said jokingly he was “forced” to come by his parents! 

Four sixth grade girls claimed to have very different motivations. Two said they wanted to help hungry families, one to help the community, and the last because “the Peer Leaders have worked very hard” and she wanted to support them.

Greeting the assembled crowd was MMS Art Teacher Claudia Sohr, Advisor to SOAR, who encouraged the crowd that “together we can make a difference and live a life that has meaning.” 

The diners then heard from representatives of the three groups receiving funds.

Laura Sodano, Hunger Action Coordinator of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, spoke of how people today in all segments of society are being forced to make tough choices. She sees some having to choose between paying for food and paying for heat. She knows of senior citizens who are cutting their doses of medicine in half because they can’t afford them.

Praising the work of Food Sourcing Coordinator Tristan Wallack, also present Thursday evening, Sodano says that the FoodBank has distributed over 40 million pounds of food to over 900,000 people in New Jersey in the last year alone. It has given school supplies to 209 schools. The FoodBank also has after school cafes, where Sodano says some children may get their last meal of the day. They also serve over 1000 students every day through 15 different Boys & Girls clubs, churches, synagogues and mosques. 

Those wishing to volunteer can visit the foodbank's warehouse in Hillside, or create a food drive of their own. “Don’t ever say to yourselves, ‘I’m a kid. I don’t make a difference,’” Sodono concluded. “Look at the difference you’ve made tonight.”

Laura Fischer from Down The Block LLC said she was grateful hers was one of the chosen charities “yet again for the third time.” As she explained, Down The Block has been helping local Millburn-Short Hills families pay their bills ever since the economic downturn in 2008. Fischer said with pride, “We have now paid $100,000 worth of bills, helping 48 families.” She then read letters of thanks from individuals and families who have received aid. Fischer concluded, “All of you here at Millburn Middle School should feel so good and so proud that you have helped Down The Block be there for your neighbors.”

The last speaker was MMS teacher Rebecca Nelson, Vice President of Eliminate Poverty Now. This group gives aid and assistance to the Little Rock Early Childhood Development Center in Kibera, Kenya, a Nairobi slum. According to Nelson, Kibera’s size is about that of Central Park, and one million people live there. Founded in October, 2003, the nursery school started with ten children. The school now has 200 children, and serves over 450 children in the community, including those with special needs. The school’s founder also established a day care and sewing center for young mothers. Nelson said that Millburn Middle School students have donated $2000 to building the library at the center, which has been named the Millburn Library.

Nelson put together a touching IMovie depicting the school and the children. She closed by saying “I think one of the greatest quotes I’ve heard is that we are the first generation in the history of the world to have the power to eliminate extreme poverty, and you’re really making a difference being here tonight, feeling the passion for the cause, and instilling that in your children and your community.”

The back of the little tents on each table contained facts on hunger issues in New Jersey and beyond:

  • Seventeen percent of New Jersey is hungry and only 6 percent receive welfare.
  • 738,900 people live at or below the poverty line.
  • 1.6 million people in New Jersey are among the working poor.
  • In New Jersey, 27 percent (575,000) of kids live in low income families.
  • In the United States, more than one out of six children lives in a household with food insecurity, which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal.

If anyone would like to donate, contact claudia.sohr@millburn.org, or send on behalf of Empty Bowls, c/o Claudia Sohr at the Middle School, 25 Old Short Hills Road, Millburn, NJ 07041.

Excitement continued at the Evening of Excellence. Parents and children passed through the halls and headed for classroms while listening to music in front of the auditorium from the Select Strings conducted by Marie Tracy, and Sax Duets with WooHee Han and Alber Kuo, and Fred Czarnecki.

Lots of people were drawn to brightly painted chairs lining one wall in the first floor hallway. Sohr, whose idea it was to have students paint the chairs, writes, "The Chair Project was born when I delivered the used bicycles to the Bike Exchange back in October and went down to the basement to help store the bikes.The chairs were piled in a corner and I inquired about their future (the bike store used to be an old Newark restaurant and the chairs were left there when the store changed hands). I asked the director of the Bike Exchange Organization if I could take them for the purpose of 'upcycling' them and she agreed. (According to Wikipedia, upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value.)  The used chairs meant to be put out on the global garbage heap have been given a new life by the Soar Harmony Peer Leaders.”

The chairs were sold during the Evening of Excellence for $25 each. Proceeds will be donated back to the Newark Bike Exchange which in turn gives its profits to the Girls and Boys Clubs of Newark. Half of the funds received from the sale of the chairs will be donated to UNICEF.

Another highlight of the evening was the preview of three songs from the musical “13.” Jake Gluckman and Samuel Dantowitz, leading actors in the show, received excited screams and extensive applause for their performances. “13” will play at the Middle School March 30-April 1.