Erlea Jimenez was a 9th grader in Newark when he and his classmates drew lots for internships across the city. His draw seemed completely random at first — a months-long stint at a New Jersey glassblowing studio launched by an artist from the Midwest. 

“I got lucky,” he says today. “I landed here and then I fell in love with it. I saw all the glass art and I saw so many cool ideas and met interesting people. I just wanted to stay.”

And he has. Jimenez, now 23, works at GlassRoots, an innovative studio that teaches disadvantaged youth the delicacy of glassblowing and the hard realities of business entrepreneurship. “I was interested in business a lot,” says Jimenez. “I’m not an artist. I’m a science kid who wanted to be a chemist. But this is science too--the way glass works.”

Since it was founded in 2001 by Pat Kettenring — an Instructor, Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration, now retired — the non-profit GlassRoots has served about 20,000 youth in Newark. Most come for free and reduced-cost classes in glassblowing and entrepreneurship, and for coveted internships. Organizers say an unknown number of students have gone on to jobs within the glass industry. New Jersey is home to several manufacturers of glass instruments used by scientists.

Others have opened businesses in other fields. And many have continued to explore artistic expression as a form of therapy, discipline and self expression.

“What GlassRoots did was create this really remarkable safe space where you are, who you are,” says Coordinator Ellen Brown. “Everyone has some gift that they're bringing. They might not know what it is, but when you're in ground that’s fertile, it allows you the chance to grow.”

The unique non-profit is funded primarily through grants and donations, along with tuition from classes open to the general public and from the sale of glass products made by professional artists. The city of Newark just awarded GlassRoots with a $500,000 grant to expand its urban facility.

For youngsters often pigeonholed into limited career paths, GlassRoots is a chance to see art as a way to expand their horizons. 

“As a kid, I viewed art as separate from engineering and mathematics,” says Jimenez. “But I later learned that art is super connected to everything.”

Published on Jan 27, 2020