A skill to help women shine

For some former welfare recipients, making glass beads is an unusual way to earn a living.

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. Walsh learned how to make ornate glass beads.

"I knew I needed to make a change and that I needed to get out of my marriage, but I couldn't see an avenue out," she says. "When the beads came along, I finally saw it."

In 1997, Walsh became part of a new scholarship program at the UrbanGlass studio and workshop in Brooklyn, which teaches low-income women and those on welfare how to make glass beads as a way to earn extra money.

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 side. 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. She took an HTML class online and produced a website for her business, www.kashabubeads.com. (Kashabu means hollow bead in Swahili.) Butler has also participated in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, for emerging glass artists.

"I absolutely believe in the mission of the Bead Project," says Pat Kettenring, the founder of a program in Newark, N.J., that teaches at-risk children glassmaking skills. "All over the country there are new projects using glass as a medium of engagement. Glass is exciting, it's a little dangerous, and it's challenging."

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.' "

That's what Paloma Wasserstein, a Chilean immigrant, gleaned from the Bead Project. Mrs.Wasserstein had earned a degree in arts conservation and taught at the university level in Chile, but since moving to the United States a year and a half ago, she has not had legal permission to work.

An opportunity opens

That stagnancy bothered her a great deal. Her husband, an American, and his family tried to support her, but she found herself more and more isolated at home, and feeling more worthless each time she asked her husband for money to buy groceries, she says.

"I felt like I wanted to quit everything; I saw no opportunity here," says Wasserstein. "The first money I got from making beads, it was my first sense of hope."

It felt good to succeed, she says. She recently presented her work at the International Exposition of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art in New York. Having found her "own role" in her new country has made quite a difference in her life, she says. Since she will be allowed to work in the future, nurturing her beadmaking skill now will put her in a position to earn money later.

"A door finally opened," she says. "The first time I made a bead it was like 'ta-da,' like in the movies. Beads are my guardian angel."

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