Bowling for hunger: Scarborough students learn ceramics, raise awareness

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SCARBOROUGH — Members of Lisa Ruhman’s alternative education ceramics class were busy throwing, glazing and painting ceramic bowls on Nov. 18, in preparation for their upcoming fundraiser, the Empty Bowl Project.

The 14 junior and senior students, many of whom were introduced to ceramics this semester, have been working since September to prepare for the second annual fundraising project, which aims to raise awareness for the fight to end hunger.

This year’s event is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 22, to coincide with the annual student choral holiday performance. A formal invitation to attend is sent to area nursing home residents, but everyone is welcome, Ruhman said.

Those who participate in the fundraising project, which is supported by independent organizations such as food banks in cities and towns across the country, typically offer a meal of homemade soup in a hand-crafted bowl, at a reduced cost around the holidays.

The effort provides a warm meal while highlighting the larger issue: nearly 17.5 million households across the United States suffer from food insecurity, according to Feeding America.

Approximately 206,000, or one out of every six Mainers, struggle with hunger, Feeding America says. More than 40,000 people, or about 14 percent of the total population in Cumberland County, suffer from food insecurity.

On the day of a fundraiser, hundreds of bowls are filled with soup and served with bread and a beverage.

Attendees have the option of buying one of the students’ bowls filled with soup, or a paper container of soup, plus a side of bread and a bottle of water, for $5 or $10.

Ruhman’s class last year made about 100 bowls for the project, and raised about $1,000. The total was matched by a member of the community, so the class was able to donate about $2,000 to Preble Street.

On the education side of things, the project allows the class to learn about the technical aspects of working with ceramics, while also actively participating in a project from inception to tangible completion, Ruhman said last Friday.

“It’s just a really positive experience for them,” she said. Participating in a project like this “is a way for them to give back, help and make a difference.”

“It looks easy, but it’s pretty hard,” Wade Disney, a 17-year-old senior, said just before 8 a.m. last Friday. Apron-clad, he sat hunched over a spinning clay bowl on a pottery wheel, cupping one of his hands around the bilge while the other pinched the lip of the bowl as it spun through his fingers. It was the third bowl he’d made so far that morning.

Other students were peppered at long desks across the art room, painting bowls before they were fired in the kiln.

“It’s really nice” to be educated “in a different learning environment,” 17-year-old Amelia Kearns said.

Scarborough High School has 22 students in its alternative education program. Some, like Kearns, still attend some traditional classes. The purpose of the Alt Ed program is to provide students with a choice of engaging in a learning structure that’s different that the predominant lecture-listen style.

The goal of the Alt Ed program is to “strengthen students’ academic skills in ways that help them feel more confident about pursuing educational, training and job opportunities beyond high school,” according to a description written by Alt Ed teachers.

To gain a contextual understanding of the purpose of the Empty Bowl Project, students spent time this semester volunteering at Preble Street in Portland, which is where the proceeds collected from the bowl sale will be donated.

Rather than remain isolated in the classroom, the project allows the students to expand their experience, because ultimately, “it’s a community event,” Ruhman said.

“It’s a good thing to get the community into the school and to get them out into the community to volunteer,” she said.

The students recognize, too, that the work they’re doing goes beyond the walls of the classroom.

Kearns, as she was nearly finished painting one of her bowls, said, “It’s nice to be able to say, ‘I made this, and now we’re giving it to you.'”

Alex Acquist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Wade Disney, 17, molds a clay bowl on a pottery wheel in Lisa Ruhman’s ceramics class at Scarborough High School on Nov. 18. Disney and his classmates have been crafting ceramic bowls since the beginning of the semester in preparation for the annual Empty Bowl Project.

Scarborough High School ceramics instructor Lisa Ruhman, left, watches as her students paint ceramic bowls for the annual Empty Bowl Project, where they will sell the bowls, filled with soup, to raise awareness about hunger.

Finished bowls, some still warm from the kiln, sit on a table in Lisa Ruhman’s ceramics class at Scarborough High School.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.