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1,000 Petaluma Bowls

What: More than 1,000 one-of-a-kind pottery bowls will be on exhibit, with auction bids starting at $20. Proceeds support local nutrition programs Petaluma Bounty and Meals on Wheels.

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday

Where: Hotel Petaluma, 205 Kentucky St., Petaluma

Cost: $20, includes a soup luncheon with beverages.

Tickets: available at the door.

Details: call 707-765-8488 or go online to facebook.com/PPSCBowls/.

Elece Hempel isn’t remotely apologetic when she admits she snatched up just about every unglazed ceramic bowl in the Petaluma area. It was with good cause.

“There ain’t a white bisque bowl anywhere in Sonoma County,” quipped Hempel, Petaluma People Services Center’s executive director and the mastermind behind its 1,000 Petaluma Bowls fundraiser for nutrition services. “They call me the crazy bowl lady.”

Hempel laughed as she recounted three months of gathering bowls and lugging boxes of paintbrushes and colorful glazes to decorate them. The bowls will go up for auction Friday to help fund Meals on Wheels and Petaluma Bounty, programs that feed the hungry and educate people about nutrition and healthy eating.

Now in its fourth year, 1,000 Petaluma Bowls has exceeded Hempel’s goal. Several years ago she’d heard from a friend about a similar project in Seattle and had a hunch it could work in Petaluma.

“I really started to think, ‘How can I engage my community, too?’”

By inviting businesses, clubs, individuals and organizations to host painting parties, Hempel reasoned, everyone in the community could participate, transforming bowls of various shapes and sizes — for soup, cereal, or heaping mounds of ice cream — into decorative and useful works of art.

No artistic experience was required, only a willingness to help fight hunger in the community by spending a few hours with friends and colleagues, using creativity and kindness to collectively make a difference for others.

“They create an expression of their personality,” Hempel said of the bowl painters. Their designs include ladybugs and birds, flowers and trees, stars, moons, hearts and polka dots. There also are sailboats, squiggles, abstracts and animals of every kind.

Hempel, who attended the art sessions and used the opportunity to raise awareness about her agency’s hunger-fighting programs, noticed something unexpected.

“They paint what they’re wearing,” she said.

She saw bright colors from those sporting Hawaiian shirts, for example, repeated on their bowls. Others attired in softer palettes echoed their color preferences on their bowls, too.

No two bowls are alike; each is a unique, heartfelt work of art. Professional artists contributed their talents as well, providing a broad range of styles for the exhibit and auction.

The bowls represent a cross section of the community: local banks, churches and community service groups hosted gatherings. Members of the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce showed their talents and support; the Petaluma Woman’s Club hosted an event at its historic clubhouse; small groups of friends gathered around dining room tables in private homes.

GHD, a global engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services firm with a Santa Rosa office, has hosted bowl-decorating sessions every year since the program’s inception.

Hempel said some businesses provide food and wine for employees, turning the art sessions into festive, team-building opportunities. Some firms cover all costs, even buying back their bowls as employee Christmas gifts.

Several times, it’s been a “friend of a friend who knew someone” who reached out to businesses to host sessions or make donations. In one case, Petaluma People Services Center ended up with a grant from the Chauncey and Marion D. McCormick Family Foundation to enhance and expand education programs for Petaluma Bounty.

1,000 Petaluma Bowls

What: More than 1,000 one-of-a-kind pottery bowls will be on exhibit, with auction bids starting at $20. Proceeds support local nutrition programs Petaluma Bounty and Meals on Wheels.

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday

Where: Hotel Petaluma, 205 Kentucky St., Petaluma

Cost: $20, includes a soup luncheon with beverages.

Tickets: available at the door.

Details: call 707-765-8488 or go online to facebook.com/PPSCBowls/.

Making connections with community members also has increased direct mail donations. Checks for $25 or $30 have expanded to $100 or $150.

Every effort matters, from the children who join their parents in decorating bowls to community partners who contribute to the campaign. Joan Lindt of Family Tree Pottery, for one, provides a gigantic service coordinating the firing of the bowls.

“She’s got kilns going all over this town,” Hempel said. “We’ve got kilns going everywhere to get these fired.”

Pongo’s Kitchen & Tap co-owner Kathleen Stafford is among those who’ve made the 1,000 Petaluma Bowls fundraiser a tradition. She has purchased nearly 30 bowls so far “and it’s on my list again to go,” she said.

She uses more than 20 large bowls for entrees at the restaurant, with several smaller ones in her home kitchen.

“I just love the idea of doing things that literally help people in my community,” Stafford said. “It just makes you feel you’re part of something.”

Individual donations are the program’s foundation. Each participant pays $20 to paint a bowl, and can decide whether to keep it for an additional $20, or put it up for auction where it can raise a greater amount. Everyone who paints a bowl is dubbed a “Community Artist” and attends the fundraiser for free.

Even those who question their artistic abilities are surprised to discover their bowls raise more money than they thought possible, Hempel said. Once the fired bowls are on display, their sheen and brilliance unveiled, “people get so excited” to see their efforts transformed.

Last year’s top auction item went for $800. Painted by professional artist Chuck Pyle, the bowl featured a portly President Trump with the message, “I’m Going to Drain the Swamp.”

The public is invited to bid on bowls during the Black Friday auction and soup luncheon, which last year raised about $10,000 for Petaluma People Services Center.

The program has grown steadily each year. Last year nearly 900 bowls were completed, while this year’s tally is more than 1,000 bowls.

With each bowl, Hempel said, someone in need is receiving a healthy meal they otherwise wouldn’t have. She reminds participants their contributions are more than artistic efforts: “This is someone not missing a meal today because I made my bowl.”

The effort funds the local Meals on Wheels program, which operates every day of the year, providing hot, nutritious meals to seniors who are homebound, unable to prepare meals or barely scraping by on fixed incomes. More than 260 meals are delivered daily to homes in Petaluma, Penngrove and west to Two Rock, Valley Ford and Bodega Bay. It costs about $8 a day to feed a senior through Meals on Wheels.

The 1,000 Petaluma Bowls campaign also supports Petaluma Bounty, a multifaceted, local food security initiative with programs that include community gardens; a farm producing food sold at affordable rates; nutrition education; and the Bounty Hunters gleaning program that cultivates fruit from trees around the region — produce that otherwise would go to waste. Petaluma Bounty assists hundreds of local families and individuals in need.

There are too many people in need of quality food, Hempel said, even in bucolic communities like Petaluma.

“Our tagline is ‘Someone you know missed a meal today.’ It’s not even seven degrees of separation,” she said. “Someone you know missed a meal in a community like this. Shame on us.”

With continued awareness — and bowl by bowl — community members can help their neighbors in need.

“That’s my dream,” Hempel said, that lovingly decorated Petaluma bowls “are everywhere.”

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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