Bryan Todd, left, is served a bowl of tomato basil soup by Jesse Martinez of the VOA Life House during the “Empty Bowl” fundraiser Thursday evening at the YMCA.Bryan Todd, left, is served a bowl of tomato basil soup by Jesse Martinez of the VOA Life House during the “Empty Bowl” fundraiser Thursday evening at the YMCA.

Event helps residents understand life in poverty

SHERIDAN — The idea is to host a simple dinner, encouraging attendees to forgo their usual routine to experience a meal someone would likely have in a shelter — soup, bread and water. The soup is served in handmade bowls donated by the community, which attendees then bring home with them. At home, the bowl acts as a daily reminder that elsewhere someone’s “bowl” is empty tonight.

The sixth annual Empty Bowl fundraiser in Sheridan was held last night at the Sheridan YMCA.

The soup dinner benefits the Volunteers of America Northern Rockies homeless shelter located on the Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus and has been growing steadily each year.

The Empty Bowl was started as a national grassroots campaign for hunger and homeless awareness and was adopted by the VOA. The simple event has grown over the years and is the main source of income for a program that relies entirely on community support. All funds raised by the event are put directly into the shelter’s operating budget.

“The VOA has several programs but this one is unique as it relies on community support more than any other,” said Angela Lockard, special events and community outreach coordinator for VOA. “This event literally keeps the lights on out there.”

The homeless shelter in Sheridan hosts 30 beds, 16 of which are dedicated to veterans and the rest are often filled with families and women.

The shelter is not an emergency shelter, meaning it is not just a place to sleep on a cold night. The shelter is open 365 days a year and functions in 30-day cycles of goal-oriented work for those staying there.

When a new person is accepted into the shelter, they undergo an entrance interview to determine what resources and jobs may be suitable for them and then goals are set for their stay. The VOA employees that staff the shelter work with the guest to reach their goals, with a final goal of being a functioning part of society when they leave.

“When you are just surviving and worried about where your next meal will come from or where you’ll sleep at night, you’re not thinking about your goals and dreams,” Lockard said. “The shelter serves as a hand up, not a hand out, to find and reach those goals.”

This year the organizing committee for Empty Bowl had received 800 donated bowls, 1,000 servings of soup were ready to be dished out, two tables of silent auction items were available for bidding and Canary Joe performed live music.

Lockard said everything was set except the one thing that was out of her control, whether or not people show up. They did.

The event ran from 5-8 p.m. but people were lined up to get in prior to opening and by 6:30 p.m. it looked as if they would run out of soup.

“On a Thursday night, after a long day of work, when the weather is beautiful, to pack up your family and go to a gym to eat soup,” Lockard said, “I mean, this is just incredible.”

The community support for the program was evident from the crowds of attendees to the numerous volunteers.

Lockard said this is the first year she has not needed to seek out volunteers. The Life House, another VOA program that is a men’s rehabilitation center, approached the organizers and asked if they could help. They set up the gym and served the soup as a way to give back to the VOA, which has given so much to them.

Junior high and high school ceramics classes, as well as local artists, crafted and donated the bowls.

The local Ministerial Association lead by Pastor Doug Goodwin spearheaded the efforts and Lockard said every church in town contributed to the cause.

In fact so many people volunteered to help, the VOA only needed to provide eight staff members for the event. All of the support helped the VOA in their goal to have a $0 event budget to maximize the shelter’s profits.

Initial estimates show that this year’s event was attended by 700 people and raised $14,000.

“It’s easy to go to one of the more elite events in town; who doesn’t love to dress up and have drinks for a cause?” said Lockard. “But what event can bring this many people out without alcohol? They came to support the cause because they believe in it and we are so grateful for that.”

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