By Rich Pollack
It was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl that first touched Peg Ekberg’s heart and led her to a lifetime of helping others.
“I can’t stand to see someone else hurting,” she says.
Ekberg, who turns 94 this month, has been helping people in need through her volunteer efforts since she was a child, when she collected money for struggling neighbors, one quarter at a time.
Today, she is playing an important role in raising money for the Palm Beach County Food Bank through the Empty Bowls project, a nationwide effort to fight hunger. Supporters pay $25 each for their choice of a hand-crafted ceramic bowl and to share a simple lunch of soup, bread and a cookie with like-minded community members.
The bowls came from the Outlaw Pottery and Art Studio in Cocoa and were purchased by the Food Bank.
Ekberg first got involved in the project three years ago through her church, Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Palm Beach.
A year later, the Delray Beach resident started an Empty Bowls drive in her Harbour’s Edge community, which last month drew nearly 100 residents and raised close to $4,000.
While recognizing the impact one can have assisting others, Ekberg says that she gets a lot of personal satisfaction from supporting organizations that serve those in need.
“To be able to help others is probably the best thing that can happen in your life,” she says. “It’s what keeps me going.”
In addition to her support for the Palm Beach County Food Bank, the local organization that benefits from the Empty Bowls project, Ekberg continues to volunteer with both Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters, organizations she has supported for close to 75 years.
“They tell me I may be the longest member of the league in Florida,” she says.
A former resident of Gulf Stream who came to South Florida 30 years ago, Ekberg has served on the boards of both organizations and has served as the president of the Palm Beach County Planned Parenthood chapter.
She has been active at Bethesda-by-the-Sea, serving on the church’s outreach committee, which she has chaired in the past.
When the church got involved in the Empty Bowls project, Ekberg was tapped to find 250 volunteers to help.
She didn’t have any problems getting recruits.
“I am an old lady and people were afraid to say ‘no,’ ” she says.
Ekberg later was asked to coordinate the baking of hundreds of cookies handed out to everyone who purchased a bowl.
Seeing the success of the effort in Palm Beach inspired her to bring the Empty Bowls project to Harbour’s Edge.
She contacted the senior living community’s activities director, Judy Stauffer, and chef Tim D’Antuono, who both greeted the idea enthusiastically.
That first year, 60 Harbour’s Edge residents participated, each buying a bowl and then sitting down in the dining room for a bowl of soup prepared by the kitchen staff. The event raised about $2,500.
In addition to raising money, the event helped raise awareness of the hunger issues in Palm Beach County. Ekberg had brought in Perry Borman, executive director of the Palm Beach Food Bank, and also spoke to the residents herself.
“I want people to understand that those who are poor are not lazy bums,” she says.
This year, the team at Harbour’s Edge agreed to host the Empty Bowls program, even though the kitchen and dining room are being renovated. Instead, tables were set up in a makeshift dining room and supporters gathered together over a lunchtime meal.
“You look around the room and you get the warmest feeling because you know everybody cares,” Ekberg says.
“I think everybody who was there feels better knowing that they’re part of something that’s helping others.”
By Rich Pollack