Oyinkansala Odeketan, a Germantown High School senior originally from Nigeria, shows the stained glass piece she made and personally delivered to a group of Native American teenagers in Minnesota last week.

by Lou Mancinelli

Last Monday through Friday eight current and two former Germantown High School (GHS) students took stained glass pieces they created through the local “Stained Glass Project: Windows That Open Doors” after-school program, and they delivered the artworks to the Ojibwe People’s School in Red Lake, Minnesota, located on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

There they shared the art with Ojibwe students they’ve been pen pals with since they started making the pieces last September. They also went rope climbing and fishing and learned more about the Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa people. The two groups of students share a common bond in that both groups have been plagued by underfunded education.

“Our inner city kids have seen incomplete families, violence and tragedies that I can’t even conceive,” said Joan Shrager, the project’s co-founder, “and they are going away and taking creations they made to a whole different culture … These kids haven’t even been to Northeast Philly, and now they’re ambassadors [to the Ojibwe nation.]”

The trip marks the second time students from the program traveled with mentors to deliver pieces they created. (They also made stained glass pieces for a school in North Philly and for a South African school for AIDS orphans.) Last winter a group traveled to New Orleans to share their work with students in a school devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, a group of mentors traveled to a school in South Africa to deliver the stained glass to students, some of whom lived in shacks without electricity.

The program takes inner city GHS youths who have experienced tough situations at home and in their neighborhoods and provides the kids with an outlet for expression and imagination through envisioning and creating stained glass. It also teaches them about the culture and history of the places they are making the glass for.

Since the start of the school year, once a week on Wednesday afternoon, the students gathered at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) to work on the glass. They’ve learned how to cut glass and stretch lead to build borders and frames. Each kid creates his/her own piece, but that creation is dependent on the help of others.

Each year in the program, founded in 2006 by two longtime artists and friends, Joan Shrager and Paula Mandel, the art becomes the medium for developing and strengthening the personalities and self-esteem of youths raised in difficult situations.

“For every application for college and for scholarships, I wrote about The Stained Glass Project,” said Oyinkansala Odeketan, a GHS senior originally from Nigeria. “Once you come, you always want to come back,” added Janai Dallas, a graduate of the program. “It’s like a family. I come here, relax and work out my feelings. It helped me learn patience and creativity.”

“The program is as much about the relationships as it is about making the glass,” said Paula Mandel, the project’s co-founder.

In addition to learning about a new culture, students also learn about public speaking. On the reservation they present their pieces and talk about what it means to them. The pieces are colorful and evocative. They look like mosaics. One is a flower. Another looks like a butterfly.

Gravers Lane Gallery in Chestnut Hill, The Goldenberg Group and People Helping People made the trip possible through a donation by a patron of Gravers Lane Gallery. The trip cost about $1000 a person. The previous trip to New Orleans was funded in part by a $6000 First Trust Bank donation.

The project was first envisioned in 2006 when Mandel was speaking with locals Dr. Barbara Mitchell and musician Sharon Katz about an after-school program at FUMCOG that might provide an artistic outlet for local boys experiencing difficulties. Mandel and Shrager have worked together for years (they ran the Art Forms Gallery in Manayunk together until 2006), so Mandel asked Shrager if she wanted to help her teach the class. “We were just gonna have the kids make cute things to bring home,” said Shrager, a Jenkintown resident.

But that changed when they learned Katz was building a school for kids with AIDS in South Africa. In the 1990s, Katz, a native of South Africa, organized “The Peace Train,” which took a group of diverse people through apartheid South Africa. Mandel rode on that train. When she found out Katz was building the school, the idea was born to create stained glass for the school.

The Stained Glass Project has now grown from a local art class that gives troubled youths an outlet to a global group transforming those teens into ambassadors for Germantown. “I believe in the power of art as something that heals people,” said Mandel, 60, a Lafayette Hill resident raised in Mt. Airy. “It gives people a means of expression that is not criticized for people who are often criticized and pigeonholed.”

For more information about the Stained Glass Project: Windows That Open Doors visit its Facebook page, or email jshrager2@comcast.net.