Empty Bowls, Full Hearts: Attorney co-chairs program to aid Cass Community Social Services


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Calli Duncan, a partner with Foley & Mansfield in Ferndale, co-chairs “Empty Bowls Detroit,” an outreach of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in St. Clair Shores.

The organization works with sponsors Beaumont Health, Shore Pointe, C&B Scene, Huron Capital, and Marchiori Catering, and Sugar Hill Clay studio to benefit the nonprofit Cass Community Social Services in Detroit, that serves one million meals annually to the hungry, provides shelter for nearly 300 people each night, and offers job training and jobs for nearly 100 people.

“This year, our combined Empty Bowls events and efforts, culminating in our hugely successful event at Detroit’s historic Eastern Market and our family event at our church, raised over $25,000 for Cass,” Duncan says.

According to Duncan, the Empty Bowls concept was the brainchild of a Michigan art teacher 25 years ago as a way to get his art students directly involved in giving back.    

“Anyone can hold an event and call it Empty Bowls, as long as the proceeds go to feeding the hungry,” she explains. “All events feature a simple meal of soup and bread, and attendees take home a bowl to remind them that someone’s bowl is always empty.”

Duncan’s involvement started nine years ago when her co-chair, Bonnie Mellos, was directing the Vacation Church Camp and decided the concept would tie in nicely with the art component. It continued with the camp, then the Sunday School.

“Our proceeds have always gone to Cass, and our admiration for Cass and the work they do in the City of Detroit continues to inspire us,” Duncan says. “Three years ago, we made the decision to take it further than the walls of our church and ‘re-branded’ ourselves Empty Bowls Metro Detroit or Empty Bowls Detroit with the hopes that people outside of our eastside Detroit community would get involved.”

Clay bowl painting workshops were hosted by Sugar Hill Clay Studio, Cass, and private groups and businesses – the first year that bowl workshops were held outside of the clay studio environment.

“The first time we took our ‘show on the road’ to hold a workshop was at a resale shop in Livonia in early October, and thank goodness my daughter Claire came with me to help out,” Duncan says. “Since then, we’ve gotten more organized and have hosted bowl workshops at various businesses and churches – we even had a bowl painting workshop at our Foley & Mansfield offices.”

Painters make a donation to help defray the costs of buying bowls and glazes. 

“It’s really the first step in the ‘fellowship’ that develops with an outreach like this – not only are we coming together to help a good cause, but we’re coming together and meeting new people while participating in something fun and creative,” Duncan says.

Duncan, whose two daughters and mother pitch in to help, likes to sit and paint with participants, while talking about the event, and about Cass.

“It’s really great to be able to connect with the people who’ve come out to support us,” she says.  “This fall, someone asked how many bowls I had painted. I had to laugh. I’m sure it’s over 50, maybe over 100. I’ve painted bowls inspired by my daughter’s curtains, my mom’s 1950s dishes, even the design on the tissue box in the office.”

Duncan enjoyed bringing that fellowship to Foley & Mansfield and sharing it with her colleagues. 

“After hearing about our events, the people in my office decided to donate money collected during a ‘Souper Bowl’ soup competition in our office to our Empty Bowls cause,” she says. “The support from my co-workers has been overwhelming.”

The group also raised funds by selling bowls at three Sunday Holiday Markets in November and December at Detroit’s Eastern Market.

“We started in 2015 selling left-over bowls from the year before – and despite Rev. Fowler’s initial doubts that we’d make any money, we raised over $900,” Duncan says.

This past year, in addition to selling $1,500 worth of bowls, the group also sold $1,500 of items produced by Cass’s Green Industries, including mud mats and flip flops made from discarded tires – all made by formerly homeless people.

“This time, our reputation was known and people were looking for us,” Duncan says.

The group’s two “main events” were Empty Bowls fund-raisers on March 4 at Eastern Market and March 6 at the church. The Friday Night “21 and over event” was launched four years ago as a “preview” night. Originally held at Sugar Hill Clay and the adjoining teashop, last year’s attendance of more than 100 people made organizers realize a bigger venue was needed.

“We decided on Shed 5 at the Eastern Market with the hopes we would get at least 300 people – and over 400 people showed up, with people coming from as far away as Ann Arbor, Rochester, Grosse Isle and beyond,” Duncan says. “It has grown even bigger than Sunday’s event, and bigger than we could have hoped.

“It was all hands on deck,” Duncan adds. “In addition to Bonnie and I and our families and church members, we had the help of the Rosie the Riveter group from Willow Run, volunteers from the Good Karma Club and the Junior League, as well as a group of University of Michigan students who were spending an alternative spring break volunteering for Cass.”

Restaurants La Feria, Traffic Jam and Snug, Vivio’s, Seva, Harry’s Detroit, Crazy Gringo, Grey Ghost, Crews Inn, Sala Thai and Cass Community Catering provided soup; fresh baked bread came from Avalon and Milano bakeries; Detroit Cheese provided cheese samples; and The Detroit Bakery, Jen C’s Cookies, and Grosse
Pointe South Pastries provided desserts.

Attendees enjoyed live music from Michael Brock, Michael Malis Trio, and Chily and Dio DJ Services; while celebrity soup servers included Fox 2 anchor/reporters Roop Raj and Amy Lange, Fox 2 meteorologist Derrek Kevra, and columnist Neal Rubin from The Detroit News.

Before the 2016 event was even over, Duncan and her fellow organizers were already talking about what changes, improvements and additions they would like to add next year.

“We’re going strong,” she says.