Eight years ago, Kate Plows was reflecting on her job as arts instructor at Malvern Preparatory School. She knew how students would benefit from the English and math classes they took at the private high school better known for its academics and athletics than its arts programming.
But she wanted to make her ceramics classes have impact, too.
"A lot of my students leave my studio and they've had a great experience, but they're never coming back," Plows said. "They're never sitting at a potter's wheel again."
Then it hit her: Those bowls the boys were making were empty. People were suffering from hunger. She and her students could feed them.
So Malvern Prep became involved with Empty Bowls, a national grassroots effort to end hunger in creative ways. Students craft clay bowls of all sizes in Plows' school studio, then sell the finished products. All of the proceeds are given to the Bethesda Project, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides shelter and services to the homeless.
The lesson she hopes students will take away after graduation? The importance of using their skills and interests to effect positive change.
"If you're good at football, find a way to make your experience as a football player make a difference. If you're good at math - and I'm not good at math, so I'm stretching here - try to find a smart way to make the world a little bit better through math," said Plows, now in her ninth year of teaching at Malvern.
"In our case, making these bowls and knowing the cause and how they have a direct impact on people - that for me is making the world a little better."
The students typically make about a thousand bowls for the Empty Bowls dinner - to be held Jan. 9 - although this year, students from Villa Maria Academy and the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur also will contribute. Over the last eight years, Malvern Prep's efforts have raised more than $69,000 for the organization.
"It's a huge deal," Hannah Litvin, program coordinator for community life at the Bethesda Project, said, noting that $125 provides a week of food for 20 people. "The money they raise has a lot of impact."
During classes, service days, and the Open Studios that Plow hosts on weekends during October, November, and December, a number of students work on the same bowl from start to finish. One will throw the bowl on the wheel, another will trim the edges. One will apply the first coat of colored glaze, and another will sponge-paint the bowl with a design in a contrasting color. Plows makes sure every Malvern student is involved.
On a recent service day at the school, Plows reminded the group of freshmen glazing bowls to be thoughtful while working.
"What you're doing is going to be in the world for 6,000 years," she told them, referring to the long life of ceramic pieces.
Watching the students work, the Rev. Jim Cassidy, an Augustinian priest who teaches at the school, noted it was "a true collaboration."
"It's not the kind of thing you'd expect teenage boys to get into, but they're passionate about it," he said. "They're also learning to use their creativity and talents to benefit someone else."
Last summer, Cassidy accompanied upperclassmen on a missionary trip to Peru, where making pottery is crucial to the economy. The students won over the locals when they demonstrated their skills at the wheel, he said.
"It was a great and unexpected connection between another culture and another place," Cassidy said.
Junior Dom DiStefano, 17, took his first ceramics class as a freshman. He enjoyed it so much he took more classes and goes to the studio during school hours to relax.
"It's kind of like meditation," he said. "You can get away. Like during study hall and before or after school, I'll be here."
Freshmen Jordan Berry and Matt Civitella, both 15, compared their work in the ceramics studio to their athletic pursuits.
"On the field, you have to be focused and block other things out. As far as pottery, you always have to pay attention to your pieces because if you take your eyes off the thing, it could break at any time," said Berry, who plays football and lacrosse.
Civitella, a golfer, echoed that idea.
"You can't go out there and fool around," he said. "You also have to keep in mind what other players are doing. With this, they're always reminding us it's all about the other people, not about us."
Later that afternoon, Malvern Prep sophomores went to Old City's St. Augustine Church to paint bowls with Bethesda Project residents, serve the men a meal they'd made - chicken pot pie and apple crumble - and join them for dinner.
It wouldn't seem these two groups would have much in common, especially when some are teenagers from an elite private school.
But the conversations flowed, covering music, school, food, and cars.
"I thought they'd just be prep-school kids, goody-goody," said Bethesda Project guest Joshua Myers, 31, "but they were really down-to-earth, very nice, very hospitable."
One Bethesda Project resident, Michael Rice, 57, told the teenagers about his first car: a 1968 Chevy Impala station wagon he bought for $75, painted "camouflage style with no muffler, no inspection sticker, and no tags."
"I drove that all the way down Broad Street to my first concert, Alice Cooper, past all these cops who just shook their heads when I went by."
Rice has shared meals with students in the past, so he wasn't surprised by how much he enjoyed the meal.
He'd actually signed up months in advance.
For more information on the Empty Bowls program and dinner, go to www.mpemptybowls.org.