In September 2010, when Pat Kettenring retired as executive director after ten years leading GlassRoots, the Newark, New Jersey, non-profit she founded to give at-risk youth access to life lessons through the glass hot shop, this organization launched a search to find someone capable of taking over her challenging role leading this ground-breaking organization. Under Kettenring’s leadership, 4,000 kids have spent their afternoons and weekends immersed in workshops on glassblowing, glass beadmaking, kilnforming, and mosaics before they have even taken their SATs. The discipline and intensity of working with glass has particular resonance and practical value for the young who may face equally risky and intense situations in their communities. Dealing with these aspects in the controlled environment of a glass studio can make all the difference in a young person’s outlook. In November 2010, the GlassRoots board completed their search for a replacement, and hired J. Wesley Simms, a lawyer with over ten years of non-profit management experience, who, in addition to strengthening connections with area partners and other arts organizations, plans to reconfigure GlassRoots’ programming to reach out to additional under-served youth in Northern New Jersey.
Simms relocated from Indiana, where he had been appointed by Governor Mitch Daniels to the Indiana Commission for Community Service and Volunteerism, which oversees the administration of programs such as AmeriCorps and VISTA. Simms wants to reach even more students by restructuring GlassRoots’ short- and long-term programs, including an internship program for at-risk students who have not had much success in traditional schools.
“They find that they do much better when they have a chance to come here and express themselves artistically,” said Simms.
As early as next week, GlassRoots will expand its National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) program, which educates kids on everything from accounting and marketing to creating detailed budgets, and an internship program for at-risk students struggling in traditional schools. Through NFTE students but their newly-acquired business acumen to use by developing comprehensive business plans for a nationwide competition; GlassRoots students have garnered spots in the top three from the panels of business and civic leaders that judge their presentations.
“We think it’s a great thing to teach the students how their passion for art and glassmaking can actually become a career. Most of our participants won’t become artists, glass artists at least, but these business skills are invaluable and transfer throughout the rest of their lives,” said Simms. He added that GlassWorks will also continue to collaborate with other arts organizations in the area in the next two years.
Last year saw GlassRoots students get involved with impressive projects, including collaborating on a mural in downtown Newark and making a Christmas ornament for the White House. Two GlassRoots instructors guided high school students through every stage in the creation of the mural, ranging from photographing flowers and sketching designs to making sunflowers and lilies out of glass.
After GlassRoots was selected to create the official 2010 New Jersey State Tree Ornament for the State Christmas Tree in Washington D.C., students and staff worked together to finish the prestigious project. New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie visited to tour GlassRoots and see the ornament design.
“It came out exactly how I pictured it… all through the help and hard work of the children involved with the GlassRoots team,” she wrote on her Website. ”It was incredible to see young people with the creativity and skill to be blowing glass and creating these beautiful works of art.”
Several of GlassRoots’ student artists have gone on to study glass and other art media at the college level, while others have used their skills and expertise to start businesses. Devon Houston, a freshman at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania started at GlassRoots when he was in 7th grade. “The first day in there I was on the torch and instantly was addicted to this art,” Houston said. “They taught me, and over the years GlassRoots became like a home to me. They have done so much for me that now I go and help out when I can.”
Houston, who took part in the NFTE program during his junior year of high school, decided to put his business skills to good use by making and selling glass jewelry. He has been running True Artist Productions since last November and devotes most profits into buying more supplies for the business.