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From left, seventh grade students Tapiwa Musandu, Madison Clancy, and Isabel Frazza hold up bowls they are decorating in Gary O'Neil's art classroom at Washington Middle School in Meriden, March 25, 2014. Attendees of the fundraiser for the Meriden Soup Kitchen will be able keep the bowl. | Christopher Zajac / Record-Journal
Jonathan Rios, an eigth grade student, packages some bowls in Gary O'Neil's art classroom at Washington Middle School in Meriden, March 25, 2014. The bowls will be used at Bread and Broth fundraiser for the food bank on April 2.  | Christopher Zajac / Record-Journal

Bread and Broth event draws near at Meriden school

MERIDEN — A community staple for the past 15 years could see some drastic changes in the coming years, as two of the key organizers of the Bread and Broth Community Dinner are poised to retire from Washington Middle School at the end of the school year. In the meantime, students and staff are busy preparing for this year’s fundraiser.

At the dinner, community members can buy a hand-thrown ceramic bowl filled with homemade soup. It began in 1999 after Gary O’Neil, an art teacher at Washington, attended a similar event in Cape Cod.

“They had a whole community of artists there making the bowls,” O’Neil said, “but I wanted to see if it was possible to do it just myself.”

He’s since made about 300 bowls per year, each one unique and hand-decorated by students.

“I’ll be taking bowls out of the kiln that morning,” O’Neil said of the process that culminates with the April 2 dinner. In the beginning, O’Neil said he worked with math teachers and students to determine how much clay and glaze to buy in order to make all the bowls roughly the same size. By now, however, that 500-pound clay purchase comes second-nature.

About five years ago, Bread and Broth organizers teamed with the Meriden Soup Kitchen, donating proceeds from bowl sales, as well as nonperishable food items collected.

“It’s a chance to teach kids about world hunger, and hundreds of people have a hand in making this night a success, that’s what’s so great about it. Everyone has really gotten into it,” O’Neil said.

Among those who have a hand in making the evening a success is Kevin Matsil, head of the science department at Washington.

Matsil said his experience working in a kitchen at Pratt and Whitney in East Hartford made him uniquely qualified to take over the soup side of the evening. The Pratt factory fed 2,000 people a day.

“You have to know a little something about feeding a lot of people all at once,” Matsil said. This Friday morning, he’ll pick up 50 pounds of chicken to start cooking for a pot of chicken and rice soup.

And though the soup’s gone quickly, the bowls are keepsakes. Isabel Frazza, a seventh-grader at Washington who helped design bowls, said her 26-year-old sister still has a bowl.

“It’s something you can save for your grandchildren,” said Tapiwa Musandu, another seventh grade student who helped with the bowls.

Faced with O’Neil’s retirement at the end of this year, students and administrators were unsure about the future of Bread and Broth.

“Hopefully we’ll get someone who will still do it,” said Madison Clancy, also a seventh-grader, “and someone who likes eating good soup.”

O’Neil will retire this year after working in the school system 37 years.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said.

The East Hampton native said he hopes to work with Wesleyan Pottery, a pottery guild based out of the Middletown university that also donates bowls to the event. He also hopes to stay in the school system in some capacity, he said.

Matsil, too, is “seriously considering” retirement at the end of this year.

Both said they’d be open to the possibility of being involved in the event in the future.

Ray Southland, Washington Middle School principal said he wasn’t sure about next year.

“It would be an injustice to these two, to put someone in charge who wasn’t as committed,” he said. “It’s a huge, huge, undertaking.”

O’Neil added that Beverly Bryda, event chairwoman, had been collecting careful notes on the process for the past years in order to have a system in place when O’Neil and Matsil step down.

One thing, however, will remain the same, and that’s the spirit behind Bread and Broth. Matsil said, “It’s the community coming together, something that wouldn’t have happened if the school hadn’t taken the lead.” (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @MollCal

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