Student’s Empty Bowls project supports Asmat region

May 8, 2013 / By: Rita Kovtun

When senior justice and peace studies major Sarah Beyer headed an Empty Bowls Project her freshman year to raise money for clean water in Iraq, she didn’t expect to continue the event for three years.

This time around, Beyer raised money and awareness for the Asmat area in the Papua region of Indonesia.

“St. Thomas really values the Asmat art collection, and this is a great way to sort of bring that aspect full circle and really get to the deeper issues,” Beyer said. “Yes, they make beautiful art. We should support them further.”

Students for Justice and Peace sponsored an event Tuesday where attendees bought handmade bowls for suggested donations ranging from $5-$20 that they could fill up with soup and take home.

The proceeds, which are set to go to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Agats in the Asmat region, will most likely pay for nutrition supplements to help combat malnutrition which Beyer said is a serious issue facing the area.

The group raised roughly $400 and only four of the 30 bowls available at the start of the event were left.

Beyer said previous Empty Bowls events at St. Thomas consisted solely of donated bowls from local potteries, but this year, students from the club donated 15 bowls they created using pottery equipment at St. Catherine University.

The rest of the bowls came through one of Meyer’s friends who asked computer and information sciences professor Douglas Vukson-Van Beek to collect donated bowls at a studio he belongs to.

Beyer worked with Julie Risser, director of the American Museum of Asmat Art, to focus the event on raising awareness about social justice issues such as health and nutrition in the region.

“The collection itself was born out of social justice issues,” Risser said. “The hope was that it would raise awareness of Asmat culture in the United States.”

Risser said the region’s remoteness and travel restrictions make sending money to the Asmat region problematic.

“A lot of people were involved in setting things up so that donations could go smoothly over there,” Risser said.

Beyer said she first got the idea for an Empty Bowls event, an international grassroots hunger awareness movement, from the same type of event that raised money for a food bank in her hometown of Duluth, Minn.

“I thought it would be a really fun and easy thing to bring here,” Beyer said.

In her freshman year, Beyer used the event to raise money for two water filtration systems in Najaf, Iraq, Minneapolis’ sister city, through the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project.

Encouraged by the first event’s success, Beyer continued the event her sophomore year, raising money for a pool of lending money to be used through microlending organization Kiva.

A positive off-campus Empty Bowls event experience during the John Paul II Residence Hall staff’s fall retreat motivated a group of its residents to visit the St. Thomas event together Tuesday.

Senior apartment coordinator Grace Laskowski said she was too “all about” the bowls from the first event not to share the on-campus event with the residents.

“All of the JPII staff really likes oatmeal … When we’d have our early morning staff meetings, we’d eat our oatmeal out of these bowls,” Laskowski said. “We kind of wanted to share that with our residents, too.”

Laskowski saw the event as a “great community builder.”

“I think the best way to bring people together is through good food and good company and this incorporates both,” Laskowski said.

Juniors Kara Audette and Carl Willkom hadn’t heard of Empty Bowls events at St. Thomas in previous years, but came because they “love soup.”

“You pay $5 for a meal and you get to walk away with a handmade bowl,” Willkom said. “Someone made this. I thought that was cool.”

Willkom first learned about the Asmat region and its art at the university’s Fall Leadership Institute event.

“I think it’s a good cause,” Willkom said. “It was really fascinating at that point to learn about it.”

Club adviser and justice and peace studies professor Mike Klein, who assisted with the event, said the Empty Bowls events have been “a good way to connect students to the rest of the world.”

“I think too often college students are told that someday they will be the leaders, someday they will change the world, (but) I don’t see any reason to wait,” Klein said. “It’s time to take action right now.”

Rita Kovtun can be reached at