After school let out on Jan. 4, the Kendrick Recreation Center in Roxborough filled with the sound of glass grinders and laughter. Andrew Garvey, a freshman at Parkway Northwest High School in the after-school arts program, cut red pieces of glass into the shape of a tire swing for a window he was working to complete.
Paula Mandel, a 1974 fine art and psychology alumna, started The Stained Glass Project with her long-time friend Joan Myerson Shrager, a 1984 psychology alumna, 11 years ago. The program, which teaches stained glass window-making to Philadelphia middle and high school students, meets every Wednesday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
“[When] our students come to this program I would say that 99 percent of them have never had an art class,” Shrager said. “So for them, art is a tool to investigate the world and not be criticized all the time. If you want to make a blue elephant with one orange ear, that is fine in our class. There is no wrong answer.”
In 11 years, the program has donated at least 115 stained glass windows around the world to places like a primary school in South Africa, a school in New Orleans and a Native American reservation in Minnesota.
Before the Stained Glass Project began in 2006, Mandel and Shrager formed a co-op art studio called ArtForms Gallery Manayunk.
After she graduated from Temple, Mandel worked as an art therapy intern at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Juniata Park/Feltonville and was looking for a way to use her artistic background to expose Philadelphia students to art.
In 2008, Mandel took a two-week group trip to South Africa to learn about South African history and culture. She met Barbara Mitchell, a retired Philadelphia school administrator and the founder of an after-school program at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown on Germantown Avenue near High Street. The program was mostly geared toward academics, but Mitchell was looking to expand it with an art program.
When the two met, Mandel explained her art background in painting and glass work as well as her desire to use art as a means to reach inner-city kids. Mitchell then asked Mandel to start a stained glass class for students at the church.
Mitchell felt that stained glass work would benefit her students even more than academic support alone.
“When a student knows that they have made something this fantastic, it does wonders for the mind,” Mitchell said.
The Stained Glass Project began as a small, monthly class for students to learn how to make stained glass necklaces and picture frames. It wasn’t until 2008, when Shrager and Mandel went to a fundraiser with Sharon Katz, a woman Mandel met in South Africa, that the program shifted to window-making.
Katz was fundraising for a school in South Africa called Nsimbini Primary School that serves children impacted by HIV and AIDS. Shrager and Mandel saw an opportunity for their students to feel valued and memorialized in a way that Shrager said they often lacked in their home-life.
“We tell them that stained glass can last forever if it is well taken care of,” Shrager said. “So they could go with their grandchildren to see the windows that they made. And that really gives them a legacy and a feeling of empowerment in the world.”
The program moved to the Kendrick Recreation Center in 2013, when Germantown High School closed.
Mitchell estimates 150 students have graduated from The Stained Glass Project since it began, and nearly 99 percent of them have also completed high school, Mitchell said.
“And the important thing is: When in [the student’s] lives do they have a chance to do something and … donate it?” Shrager said. “I think there’s a lot of pride in our students that they have created something very beautiful that they then donate.”
Nada Yaw Effah, a 2012 graduate of the program, credits the support and resources of the volunteers at The Stained Glass Project with his acceptance to Bloomsburg University. Effah often comes back to visit Shrager, Mandel and Mitchell.
“It’s much like a mother and son relationship, but they aren’t really mom,” Effah said. “It’s a free type of relationship.”
Shrager said whenever students have any serious problems, she and Mandel try to be there for them every step of the way.
Mandel said the night she got a call that a student had been hit by a car as one of the most meaningful moments during her time with the project.
“He put me down as his emergency contact before his foster mother. I just hadn’t realized how connected he felt.”
As the session on Jan. 4 wrapped up, Schrager looked over at four boys laughing at their reflection in a piece of stained glass.
“Almost every kid in here has had a family member killed,” she said. “And I just can’t imagine the strength that it takes to keep going. They need love, and it is an absolute love affair in here.”
Kaitlyn Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.