BRATTLEBORO - Every year, when organizers are getting ready for the annual Empty Bowls Benefit Dinner, they try to come up with new hooks to get the word out about the event.
One year they focused on the bowlmakers and another year they highlighted the cooks who make the soup.
They've talked about the volunteers who work during the meal, the food donations that make the dinner possible and the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, which receives all of the proceeds from the annual community meal.
This year, when it was time to get the word out about the upcoming dinner, long-time volunteer Naomi Lindenfeld said it was pretty easy to find a focus for the 2012 benefit.
"I think it was unanimous that we were going to dedicate this year to Melinda Bussino," she said. "This is the first time we will be holding the dinner without her."
Bussino, the former director of the Drop In Center, died earlier this year of a heart attack.
This year's ninth annual Empty Bowls Dinner is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 6, with two seatings at 5 and 6:30 p.m. in the dining hall at Landmark College in Putney.
Tickets are $25, which includes a simple meal of soup and bread, cheese, apples, dessert and beverage -- and everyone gets to take home a handmade bowl.
About 1,000 bowls are made and donated for the dinner every year.
Last year, about $26,000 was raised for the Drop In Center.
Empty Bowls is a national fundraising event that raises millions of dollars every year for anti-hunger groups across the country.
Lindenfeld said the southern Windham County dinner might not even have been held this year without Bussino's steady support.
When organizers first suggested the dinner to Bussino nine years ago, she enthusiastically embraced the idea and she helped make it a success every year.
This year, Lindenfeld said, organizers are hearing her voice at every turn.
"Not only did she think it was a great idea but she was ready to get involved and make sure it happened," Lindenfeld said. "We want to honor her and this year we are holding the dinner in her memory."
Christie Herbert, president of the Empty Bowls Planning Committee, said Bussino had a way of checking with the planning committee as she was juggling countless other responsibilities.
Then every year at the dinner, she gave an emotional speech about the Drop In Center that reminded everyone why they were there.
"This ability to transition into the moment, while holding a million details, was astounding, and particularly apparent on the evenings of the actual Empty Bowls dinners over the years," Herbert said. "When it was time for her to address the crowds, she always seemed happy to have the chance to tell people about the needs of the homeless in our area. I am glad to have had her as one of the more important mentors and role models in my life and I hope to embody some of what I learned from her."
Rising food prices and the sluggish economy have been pushing the Drop In Center to its limits, and this year more than 7,100 are expected to use its services.
Lucie Fortier, who is now the director of the Drop In Center, said the Empty Bowls dinner was one of the first events she took part in when she first got involved with the Drop In Center.
She said Bussino's enthusiasm for the event encouraged her to join the Planning Committee.
"I believe in this event. It brings everyone together for an evening," said Fortier. "Melinda's passion for her work showed and that energy flowed down to everyone who worked with her on the fundraiser. What a wonderful legacy she has left behind."
For people who can't make the dinner, volunteers will be selling bowls at the Brattleboro co-op over the next few weeks..
Tickets for the Oct. 6 dinner are available at Everyone's Books and at The Shoe Tree in Brattleboro and at Offerings Jewelry in Putney, or by calling 800-852-4286, ext. 108.
For more information go to Empty Bowls - Southern Vermont on Facebook.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.