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A skill to help women shine

A skill to help women shine

Rosita Walsh has one ritual: making herself laugh at least once each day.

But about 10 years ago, she found that daily routine harder and harder to follow. She was making minimum wage collecting admissions tickets at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and she found herself sinking deeper and deeper into an unhappy marriage. There didn’t seem to be much joy in her life.

But her happiness returned when Ms.

Traditionally, steady, minimum wage jobs have been considered the main option for these women. But the Bead Project targets those who cannot hold such positions, because they are single parents, dealing with addictions, or simply not programmed to work in shifts.

Seven years after Walsh completed the course, she makes earrings and other accessories from glass and sells them through her small business, My Heart Beads for You. She has also become an instructor and mentor for other women and children at risk.

Her personal life has changed, too. After obtaining a divorce, Walsh was able to purchase a condominium in New Jersey. After many years, she feels at peace about her life.

UrbanGlass started the Bead Project to help women in need get on the right financial track. Glass bead art was something women could pursue at home and sell on the jerseys In the best possible scenario, the income from such activity could catapult women into the role of entrepreneur.

But since the project’s inception six years ago, its founder, Annette Rose Shapiro, has also seen a number of her graduates take more control of their lives. Some have overcome alcohol and drug addictions and depression, freed themselves from abuse, and gotten off welfare.

“For many of the women, to see themselves as an artist, or even as an entrepreneur, has given them the self confidence to change other facets of their lives,” says Ms. Rose Shapiro, “more so than punching a time clock in a 9 to 5 job could.”

More than economics

Like any art, beadmaking is not the most economically viable path out of poverty, and many graduates of the program require a steadier income to support themselves and their families. But experts say that providing a safe environment for women to express themselves, even if for a short period of time, can provide the push they need to move forward, whether professionally, socially, or both.

“Learning a creative skill is really learning a life skill,” says Gerard Puccio, director of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College. “And creativity as a life skill is a wonderful coping measure.”

The Bead Project grew out of Rose Shapiro’s own professional struggles. After 13 years as a corporate art director, she was fired from her job and reduced to collecting unemployment checks. “I was flat broke,” she says.

Artistic all her life, she attended a glassmaking workshop at UrbanGlass one weekend. The glass blowing fascinated her, but beadmaking seemed more feasible. It could be done at a kitchen table with a small torch, protective glasses, glass rods, and mandrels (metal rods onto which the glass drips) and learned in a relatively short time. She discovered that she had a natural talent and began selling her work throughout New York City.

“If I can do this, it’s doable for other women as well,” Rose Shapiro said to herself. Today she is the managing editor and publisher of GLASS Quarterly, the UrbanGlass magazine.

The Bead Project, which is funded by grants and donations, is offered twice a year. It provides 25 hours of instruction in bead and jewelrymaking, as well as courses in safety, glass history, and marketing. Participants receive a $5 stipend for each hour of class they attend.

Success not guaranteed

Student success varies. Rose Shapiro says about 30 percent are able to carve out their own niches in the bead world; about 20 percent drop out altogether. The rest, like former student Anna Butler, make and sell beads in bits and spurts, as their schedules permit.

For Ms. Butler, a mother of two who used to string together earrings from store bought beads and sell them at work, full time beadmaking is a long term dream, but not yet a reality. Instead, she has worked several jobs since graduating from the Bead Project, and at times has found herself on welfare. Now she works full time doing clerical work at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn.

“It costs money to make beads, to buy glass,” she says, explaining her on and off activity. But she continues to create jewelry when she can, in a workspace she set up in her bedroom.

Still, Butler has made progress, says Rose Shapiro. (Kashabu means hollow bead in Swahili.) Butler has also participated in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, for emerging glass artists.

Ms. Kettenring founded GlassRoots Inc. after learning about a glassmaking program in Tacoma, Wash., for young gang members. She then learned about UrbanGlass’s program, and hiredsome of its graduates as teachers. The first class was offered at the Boys and Girls Club in Newark in 2001. Since then, some 150 to 200 children have participated.

“Working with glass requires a huge amount of concentration, and it often fails,” says Kettenring. “So you need to start again. Starting over is an important skill for [people] to learn.”

The ability and confidence to imagine other possibilities and move on when the first idea fails is empowering, says Dr. Puccio of Buffalo State College. “Women who use their imagination to make beads, or for anything else, then realize, ‘Oh gosh, I can take on other challenges, too.’ “

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