The Stained Glass Project students from Northwest Philly and church members of the Mission of St. Joan of Arc in West Kensington proudly hold up their stained glass windows, which were donated to a church in Uganda.

by Leslie Feldman

For local artists Paula Mandel and Joan Myerson Shrager, the Stained Glass Project is not just about creating works of art. As they say, “The project is about windows that open doors.”

Now in its 14th year, The Stained Glass Project (SGP) is a volunteer-run program involving the technically demanding artistic discipline of making stained glass. The program, which originally began at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) with Germantown High School students, has launched dozens of schoolchildren on unprecedented explorations of themselves, their artistic creativity and their ability to brighten places around the city, country and world, wherever their arrestingly beautiful pieces have been installed over the years.

“Each year, students come every week and create magnificent stained glass windows for worthy institutions,” explains Shrager. “After working so hard on them, they then donate their windows to deserving students all over the world. They receive community service credits from their schools for attending this program.”

In 2013, the SGP was welcomed into the Kendrick Recreation Center in Roxborough. Now students come from Philadelphia public schools, including Martin Luther King, Roxborough and Parkway Northwest. In an overcrowded room, teens, many who never took an art class, create serious-minded artwork, often for the first time.

“In many cases, it is their first experience allowing independent decision-making and self-expression through art,” says Shrager. “New friendships form, breaking down prejudices and barriers. Friendships often continue as students move on. Many have remained in touch over the past 12 years, often stopping in for a visit or joining us for our annual group trips.”

Approximately 110 students have made more than 120 fine art stained glass windows that have been installed in a South African center for AIDs orphans, a New Orleans school rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, on an Ojibwa native reservation in Minnesota and closer to home in North Philadelphia, Roxborough and Covenant House for homeless youth.

Last year, the windows even went to Ibanda, Uganda, in East Africa to a school for impoverished students. Another set of windows went to The Mission of St. Joan of Arc in Kensington. The students were honored at a reception at the church with applause, heartfelt gratitude and great admiration for their work.

This year, the windows will go to a school in the alternative learning space of El Punto Educativo in Las Mareas, Puerto Rico, an area devastated by Hurricane Maria. These windows will be exhibited at Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill from June 15 to the end of August this year. All windows are designed and created entirely by the students, with adult guidance and supervision.

Thanks to the generosity of many donors, the SGP has traveled together to New Orleans, Baltimore, Minnesota, Washington, D.C., NYC and throughout Philadelphia. The group has shared lodgings, broken bread and visited many cultural offerings together, including museums, galleries and theater, often first-time experiences.

Each semester there is an amazing collaboration between volunteer adult mentors, who devote about three hours every week, and the teenage stained glass artists. This time is often the only one where students can have a sustained one-to-one relationship with an adult.

Over the years, the SGP has been a diverse group of Muslims, Christians, Jews, old, young, varying economic backgrounds, artists, designers and students working with sharp-edged glass, blue-flamed torches and protective goggles to create original stained glass artwork that becomes a part of the lives of children throughout the U.S. and the world. This SGP cultural community that has developed has been life-changing for all.

The SGP is proud to have received commendations from former President Bill Clinton, former Governor Ed Rendell, the Consul General of South Africa, Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu of New Orleans, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, etc. PBS has filmed and published articles about The Stained Glass Project, and radio station WDAS featured SGP as nonprofit of the month. The American Glass Guild bestowed its “Inspiration Award” on SGP in 2014.

For more information about SGP, email joanmyersonshrager@gmail.com

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