Text by Mitch Lareau I Photos by Lupe Lopez
he Visalia Rescue Mission is a faith-based nonprofit organization that has been serving homeless and economically disadvantaged individuals and families in Visalia and the greater Central Valley for 40 years.
It was established in 1981 by community members as an overnight shelter and soup kitchen for the homeless in Visalia.
Today, it has become Tulare County’s largest privately funded nonprofit organization addressing the compli-cated issues of poverty, homelessness and addiction. All services and programs are provided free to all individuals and are funded entirely by donations from individuals, local organizations, churches, businesses and foundations in the community.
Although the mission’s services have grown over the years, such as the addition of case management and establishing a recovery program, change ultimately begins with a meal served at its kitchen. With that in mind, Empty Bowls was born.
Empty Bowls began in 2009 as a fundraising banquet and sought to bring awareness to the importance of providing a meal to those on the streets. A group of agriculture-based comp-anies, led by Nutrius, put on the first Empty Bowls in the street outside of the mission’s soup kitchen. In the pouring rain, that first event had less than 100 attendees; handmade soup bowls provided by a local artist (a keepsake and reminder of the event) were filled with reheated, store-bought soup.
On April 15, 2021, Empty Bowls hosted its 12th annual event outside Radiant Church in Downtown Visalia. Normally hosted at the VRM Community Center’s kitchen so guests can get a first-hand visual of the services and facility, this year looked a little different because of the pandemic; space was limited, tickets sold fast and (thankfully) the soup got a major upgrade.
David Vartanian of the Vintage Press, generous with his talent and resources, donated more than 200 bowls of soup. And as fate would have it, this year’s handmade keepsake bowl was provided by Bill Sanchez, the original bowl maker who helped kick off the first event in 2009.
Funds raised from Empty Bowls go directly to the expansion of VRM’s services for the kitchen and women and children’s shelter.
Over the years of feeding the community, the mission has come to realize that a simple meal for someone who is lost can give them new encouragement. That one simple act, a meal served by staff or volunteers, can give hope through sharing the gospel and a kind word. Because of that and the partnership of our community, the mission gets to see lives changed.