Glass Roots

New Jersey / Dec. 26, 2012 / by The Team

"Youth are inherently attracted to things which are dangerous and they don't get much more dangerous than these two very basic elements: fire and glass."

At Glass Roots, a nonprofit in Newark, New Jersey, young adults are getting the chance to learn about themselves and their abilities through the art of bead making and glass blowing. 

J. Wesley Simms is the nonprofit’s Executive Director and he explains that, “Glass Roots transforms lives especially of youth by fostering life-long learning and engaging students in creative self-expression.”

This includes numerous programs that teach teenagers and young adults about the art, history, and science of glass work. The first things that grab the students, however, are the fire and glass that they will be working with. 

“We teach them to approach them with respect and teach them that if they respect fire and glass, that they can create something beautiful, something of value, and they can learn lots of things from it.”

The first thing students learn about is discipline and their own ability to focus for extended periods of time. Using fire as their tool is dangerous and the students must be paying attention and aware of their surroundings at all times. 

“You're talking about glass that's heated to twelve, sixteen hundred, eighteen hundred degrees,” says Simms. “You touch that, you're going to hurt yourself pretty badly, it's a pretty serious burn. If you move in the wrong direction, you're going to hurt someone else, and if you aren't paying attention, you're gonna mess up the shape and the design of something you've been working very hard at. And so students recognize that and they appreciate that ability, that chance.” 

Jason Minami, the glassblowing instructor, explains that, “Working with 2000 degree glass and a material that they’ve never really seen before or worked with, it is quite intimidating, but give them a few days with the material and they really, really get excited about the whole process.”

It just takes a little time working with the glass and the flame that students become braver and gain more belief in their own abilities. 

“All of a sudden, students are saying, 'Okay, this isn't going to hurt me, I can work with this flame, I can respect it for what it is but I can also use it to do what I need to do,' and by the end of the class, students are usually very, very excited, they're looking at their beads and they're so proud of themselves.”

Glass Roots has several programs that they offer to their community. The first is for “in-school youth” which brings school classes in for field trips where students can work in the three studios at Glass Roots. 

Simms explains that, “students can work here … in the flame working studio where they melt glass rods into beads and other small objects that they can turn into jewelry etc.. And then they can go into the flat glass studio where we teach them mosaics and fusing and then of course, we have the hot shop in the back where they actually can see and participate in glass blowing.”

The benefit of bringing the school students in is to tie both creativity and academics together. It gives the students the chance to see their own creative abilities, that they truly are able to produce something of value, as well as giving them real-world applications for the science, maths, and engineering they are learning about in class. 

Similarly, they work with after-school groups, like the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, where they focus more on the creativity than the academics of glass work, and they offer classes for groups and families who want to experience glass work. 

Founded in 2001, Glass Roots has continued to grow and serve more and more students each year. In their last financial year, Simms says that, “we served 566 youth, which is actually a pretty significant number for us. It's 15% increase over the previous year and higher than we've ever served in our 12 year history.”

This year, they are set to reach even more students and are on track to serving “at least 1000 youth ... In the first six months of the year, we will have served almost 750 students, just youth alone,” says Simms. “That reflects, I think, a demand from the schools who are really seeing that there's value in having students work with fire and glass to learn math, history, science, engineering principles.”

Beyond these programs, Glass Roots has ‘mission programs’ which involved the students spending more time in the studio and offices. 

“They include our business and entrepreneurship program, where kids learn to make stuff in our studios and then they turn those into products, we teach them how to turn that into an actual business,” says Simms. “They create a business plan, with marketing and finance and understanding their clients. And that's been a very, very popular program for the last couple of years.”

There is also the academic internship program for which Glass Roots partners with schools, “and students spend one day working each week in our studio during the school year and they also work in our offices.”

“Students not only get to experience the glass studios, but working in our offices, answering phones, doing data entry ... So they get to see themselves as future professionals and they really enjoy that opportunity. At 15, 16, 17 years old, as soon as they're really seeing themselves differently, they can see that there is a place for them in the business world, in the nonprofit world, etc.”

For one intern, Jasmine, the experiences she’s been having at Glass Roots have been greatly beneficial to her. 

“I never knew I could be so hands-on,” she says. “Aside from making products, we learn how to make our own business and sell them and what goes into that, how to be a leader and things like that ... I’m a Junior in high school, so I took that to school with me. Now if I have to do a presentation or I have to be a leader in a group, it helps.”

The staff enjoys seeing the transformation that occurs when students come in for the first time and go from being timid to no longer being afraid of the flame and being truly confident in their own abilities. 

Often, students who visit the studio as part of a school field trip will find their way back to Glass Roots, asking about how they can become more involved with the glass blowing or bead work, and that is just one sign of how important the work they do and the transformations that occur there are. 

“When I come down, I walk in the door and I see students working,” says Simms, “the thing that really gets me excited is knowing that it's their self-confidence that's being built and when they're working on something that is very dangerous, they're learning to take a risk responsibly.”

“They learn that they can do this well and they see themselves as really much more valuable that ability to say, 'I can do this,' I don't think there's a greater gift we can really give to our students.”

Glass Roots is giving its students the tools to change their lives and their mission programs give the students the self-confidence and courage to believe in their own futures. 

The studio becomes “a shelter, a haven for a lot of kids in the community.” There are many of the students who live in difficult neighborhoods and who face nothing but challenges in their lives. 

“And yet, when they show up, they walk through that door, they know instantly, they're home, they're in a safe space, they're going to be surrounded by others who are going to affirm who they are and we're still going to push them to be even more than what they think they can be and we really do change lives here.”

While the staff at the nonprofit knows that most will not going on to a career in glass making or build a business around the art, they see the impact of what they are helping them achieve. 

“Instead, we want them to see that they can learn to create, to express themselves creatively. We want them to see that they have some innate ability to create something of value that's unique and special. We want them to see that they can boost their own sense of self-esteem so regardless of whatever they ultimately become in their life, this experience will help them understand that they can actually achieve those dreams.” 

The work Simms does running the nonprofit can become a daily grind but as soon as he gets too entrenched in that, he says that, “I come downstairs and I look at these kids and it all just sort of goes away, it puts everything that I'm doing back in perspective.”

“At the end of the day when a student walks out of here, I hope they're saying, 'I'm proud of myself. I'm proud of myself because I did something different, I did something that was difficult, I learned that I have strength and ability and value,' and they feel like they can tackle the next thing, the next challenge that comes to them.”

To learn more about Glass Roots, please visit their website and Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter.