PHILADELPHIA — In the fluorescent lighted basement of a stately old church in an uneasy part of town, a special ritual unfolds every Wednesday evening.
It begins with about a dozen students, each gingerly pulling what looks like a pizza box marked with their name from a metal shelf, carrying it to a cluster of pushed together tables and opening the lid. The bits of colorful glass inside will be cut and sanded, edged in copper, joined with solder, celebrated and admired, then given away.
Based in the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, built in 1896 for a congregation established in 1796, the Stained Glass Project is both a little known and widely admired after-school program. None of the students involved previously considered themselves artists. Most had never had an art class. The group is small in part because the work demands patience, commitment, collaboration and analytical thinking — not necessarily teenage attributes.
"It's not for everyone," project co-founder Paula Mandel said. "Glass breaks. Even that's a lesson."
Those who do take to it become part of an extended family, meeting for meals, tutoring and advice far beyond their three-hour weekly artistic meet-ups.
The closeness was evident in a recent class after their return from delivering a dozen artworks to a New Orleans school destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. More proficient kids helped others with cutting and soldering; street-wise teens greeted their comparatively sheltered teachers with heartfelt hugs and kisses; all chatted and joked like the most comfortable of old friends.
After completing some elaborate soldering work, a beaming Deshawn Brewer held aloft his piece for an upcoming exhibition at Drexel University to applause, oohs and ahhs.
"I did textures instead of colors," he explained of his work combining clear glass panels etched with different geometric designs. In the center is a circle with a blue "eye," in keeping with a theme incorporating eyes (seeing people for who they are) and hands (reaching out to others) for an exhibition next spring at Drexel.
Cornell Gilliam, a Germantown High senior and two-time marathoner, is combining his passions for running and art in his latest work: a foot crossing a yellow finish line, eyes on either side witnessing the — symbolically, his — accomplishment.
"Many of these kids don't have much, yet they make these beautiful things and they give them away," Mandel said.
The students have not decided who the recipient of their latest works will be after the show. It is a given, however, that they will be donated again to people facing dark circumstances and in need of some light.
Barbara Mitchell, a retired Philadelphia vice principal who runs the after-school program for students from adjacent Germantown High School, spearheaded the project in 2005. The first students learned to make jewelry and other decorative objects but Mandel and co-founder Joan Myerson Shrager saw the opportunity for a larger lesson.
Using donated glass, the kids in 2009 and 2010 created 18 windows to brighten a rural South African school for children orphaned by AIDS. They were displayed before the trip at a visitor center in Philadelphia's Love Park, where dignitaries offering kudos included former President Bill Clinton and South Africa Consul General Fikile Magubane.
As the group mulled the destination for their next project, NaNa Yaw Effah, a Germantown High School senior originally from Ghana, suggested New Orleans. They learned about New Orleans' iconic music, landmarks, food and traditions, incorporating the themes into the one-foot-square leaded windows with fleur de lis, trumpets, masks and streetcars.
"They have suffered so much since Katrina," Effah said. "We wanted to do something to help ... to show sympathy for what happened to them."
Seven of the young artists and six adults flew to New Orleans earlier this month with 12 artworks for Morris Jeff Community School, destroyed by Katrina and almost not rebuilt. A grass-roots coalition saved the elementary school, which has a mission to cultivate diversity and academic achievement.
"It was the first time I was on an airplane," Gilliam said with a smile. "Everyone was so great to us, the way they welcomed us and treated us, it was unbelievable."
They were greeted by 300 children — many who ran up and leaped into the teens' arms — a zydeco band and a feast of creole, jambalaya and other local dishes made by parents and teachers. Firstrust, a community bank Shrager wrote for help, paid for the students' airfare.
"We're calling it the 100 handkerchief trip. It was very emotional," Shrager said. "The kids in our program are inner-city kids who go to an inner-city school, they get to New Orleans and are greeted like superstars. They were just blown away."
Their embattled high school, like others in Philadelphia, has been plagued with violence. Fights between African-American students and their African immigrant classmates are not uncommon at school but no such clashes exist among their group, Shrager said.
"We are young, old, all denominations of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, African American and African," she said. "Nobody knows the troubles some of these kids have seen ... but the affection they have for each other, and for us, is incredible."