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Empty bowls good for the soul

Some were glazed pale blue and white, others brick red and lavender. Some were shaped like hearts, some like stars, some like flowers, some like chickens. The chickens went fast.

A few had "God is good" and "thank you" etched into the bottom. Some were flat. Most were lopsided. Several were almost Dali-esque.

Amazing things happen when a child is asked to make a bowl.

Organizers estimated that nearly 1,000 people attended the eighth annual Empty Bowls Thanksgiving fundraiser in Lykes Gaslight Park at lunchtime Thursday. They paid $10 apiece for a handmade bowl and a meager lunch of cream of onion soup, a roll, an apple and a bottle of water.

"Demand for food and demand from people in need is up this year," said Wendy Zella, special event and marketing coordinator for Divine Providence Food Bank. Last year, the event raised about $50,000 for Divine Providence. This year, Zella hoped for $75,000.

Attendees could easily agree that the cause was an important one. They had more difficulty choosing the bowls.

Tammy Kocsis, 30, took a three-hour lunch to come to the event from Valrico. She claimed two pastel bowls, one for herself, one for a friend.

Several people approached Susan Paglino, 43, with two bowls in their hands and a decision to make. Paglino, who volunteered for the first time this year, had a ready response.

"My answer is, "They're both beautiful. Why don't you buy both?' "

A few of the artists wandered among the attendees. Maritza Vargas, 11, and Byron Scott, 10, fifth-graders at Crestwood Elementary, were selected by their art teacher, Karen Lepa-Rottler, to represent the school.

Both made fish bowls, complete with fins, tails, scales, mouths and eyeballs. Maritza's was green and pink. Byron's was lavender and yellow. Both bowls took weeks to make. Both were purchased early on.

"It's important to help the needy so that the people that have money won't leave the needy people out," Byron said. "It was fun that Miss Rottler decided to take us here so we could get compliments on our bowls."

Mike Hrabcak sat on a park bench smoking a cigarette. He balanced an empty plastic soup bowl on one knee and a newspaper on the other. A dingy bedroll lay on the ground next to him. Hrabcak, 60, said he had been homeless for the past two months. He said he has attended the Empty Bowls event for the past three years.

"The soup is very good," he said, although "one bowl doesn't go very far."

Given the size and shape of the clay bowls, the soup was generally served in disposable dishes. Hrabcak did not have $10 to purchase one of the handmade bowls, but he did appreciate the intention and artistry.

"They're very nice," he said. "The kids did a good job."

Robyn Dunn and Kathy Gibson, both 39 and friends from their college days at the University of Florida, spread a blue blanket out on a patch of grass. Dunn's daughter, Audrey, and her twin friends, Carson and Sykes Eckhard, traced pictures in the dirt with sticks. Of the three 4-year-olds, only Sykes enjoyed the soup ("She loved the onions," said Dunn). All ate their apples. And each was allowed to choose a bowl.

"This is an event for them," Dunn said. "They're very fortunate children. They need to learn there are people who are not as fortunate as they are and that it's important to help out."