Soup’s on: Spectrum raises funds for at-risk youth

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Miss Vermont 2016 Rylee Field (left) and Chittenden County state's attorney T.J. Donovan serve soup at Spectrum's Empty Bowls Project at Colchester's Elley-Long Music Center last Thursday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Miss Vermont 2016 Rylee Field (left) and Chittenden County state’s attorney T.J. Donovan serve soup at Spectrum’s Empty Bowls Project at Colchester’s Elley-Long Music Center last Thursday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Soft jazz, warm light and the comforting smell of soup streamed out of the Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester last Thursday, as Spectrum Youth and Family Services celebrated the 10th year of an unusual fundraiser, this year with more than 250 guests.

“It started so small,” executive director Mark Redmond mused. “It was a couple of us in a church basement, [and] it’s just grown.”

The annual dinner is called “Empty Bowls” and helps the Burlington-based nonprofit continue to offer shelter, meals and mentoring services to at risk teens and young adults. Close to 45 full-time and 25 part-time employees serve around 1,500 clients a year, Redmond said.

Adults and children paid $50 and $20, respectively, for a ticket to this year’s fundraiser. Once there, they selected a handmade ceramic bowl crafted by local artisans.

That bowl was the vessel for an endless supply of soup, served up by some celebrity guests.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan had some trouble convincing folks to choose his kale-filled broth instead of the hearty chili Miss Vermont 2016 Rylee Field offered up.

Down the serving line, actor Rusty Dewees and artist Katharine Montstream ladled out their own varieties, all donated by local restaurants.

In spite of the famous faces, a “Giving Board” was the night’s most popular attraction. Covered in colorful tags, the board let guests purchase supplies that Spectrum’s young clients need.

Some tags sported pricier items, like five winter jackets for $500. Others required just $25 for a bus pass or a weekly grocery bill. Redmond said the model flips the traditional fundraiser on its head.

“If you go to a regular event, you bid on [something] for yourself,” he said. “Here, you’re going to bid on stuff that our kids need. It’s kind of the opposite of every standard fundraising dinner that’s out there.”

That concept caught the eye of 6-year-old Aiden Mellinger. Along with 8-year-old brother, Evan, he squirreled away money for six months in preparation for the Empty Bowls event.

Aiden Mellinger, 6, of Essex counts out the change he saved in preparation for Spectrum's Empty Bowls fundraiser, held last Thursday at Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester. Aiden's donation will help at-risk youth buy items they need. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Aiden Mellinger, 6, of Essex counts out the change he saved in preparation for Spectrum’s Empty Bowls fundraiser, held last Thursday at Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester. Aiden’s donation will help at-risk youth buy items they need. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

With a plastic bag of change in hand and a grin across his face, Evan counted out a $5 donation. His money was earmarked for a pint of ice cream and a pair of new winter socks for a Spectrum client.

Aiden’s mother, Sara Mellinger, said her boys were searching for a charity to donate their money to earlier this year. Allowing them to pick out a tangible item was a perfect fit.

“We wanted to find a more personal way to donate, instead of just sending a check in the mail,” she said.

The event ultimately raised $57,000, with $14,365 from the Giving Board, according to Sarah Woodard, Spectrum development and communications director.

That’s enough to cover the cost of 12,000 meals at Spectrum, all served to young people over the coming year, a press release said.

“People like to go because they feel like they’re going to help the kids,” Redmond said, “rather than to pay for a big, expensive dinner.”

Spectrum’s next fundraiser is slated for March, when hundreds of community leaders will sleep outside to show solidarity with the many youths that are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Redmond said he would be on the hunt for a different location to host the next “Empty Bowls” event. All 250 tickets for last Thursday’s dinner sold out six weeks in advance.

“We’ve got to get a bigger place next year,” he said with a smile.

For more information about Spectrum and the upcoming “Sleep Out,” visit www.spectrumvt.org.