Glass blowing transforming kids in Tacoma’s troubled Hilltop neighborhood

Mar 13, 2017, 5:02 AM | Updated: 9:13 am
glass blowing...
A student and mentor work on glass at Hilltop Artists. (Photo courtesy Hilltop Artists)
(Photo courtesy Hilltop Artists)

When the TV crime reality show Cops went looking for a place to shoot the series over the past decade or two, producers often turned to Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.

But thanks to an unlikely alliance of artists — including Dale Chihuly, parents and schools — hundreds of kids who formerly faced a crime and violence-ridden future have instead found a far different path.

“There were gangs and gang wars going on here and the community wanted to do something to keep their kids from entering gangs and try to pull out the ones they could. And so because Dale Chihuly is from this town, glass is something they thought of,” said Kit Evans, the longtime director of Hilltop Artists, a collective of artists, teachers and other concerned community members who thought somehow their love of glass blowing could actually change young lives.

Listen: Josh Kerns and Dave Ross discuss Hilltop Artists on Seattle’s Morning News (6:00)

The idea was simple. Set up a couple of studios and invite kids from several troubled schools to come learn the craft.

“The kids who walk in here and look around, they don’t even know what the magic is that’s going to happen for them but by the end of the semester it’s much more clear,” Evans said. “And glass has a way of lighting up the imagination because it’s hot and fluid and anything goes except when it breaks. And then they learn where the boundary is.”

But it’s about far more than just glass blowing. The program teaches teamwork, patience, discipline, dedication.

And much like the beautiful artwork that emerges from a searing oven, Evans says kids come out of the program truly transformed.

Their record certainly speaks for itself.

“For the past four years, all of our students who are of an age to do so have graduated 100 percent,” Evans said. “And there are very few school programs that come even close to that. And we’re in a district where graduation rates have been historically low, although that’s changing dramatically.”

The stories are inspirational. Evans says the program has turned out successful college graduates, business people and even an NBA player. But perhaps her proudest is one especially troubled young man who completely turned his life around in the program.

“He was tossing chairs across classrooms, even in middle school,” Evans said. “He was kind of a beyond control kid. And they asked if we could try him in this class down here. And when he was down here he was ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir’ and ‘How can I help?’ And when the principal and vice principal saw this they were like, ‘Who is this kid now?'”

Hilltop Artists does far more than just teach glass blowing. They connect disadvantaged kids and their families with a range of desperately needed services in the community. A dedicated outreach worker does all she can to give kids the support they wouldn’t otherwise get.

“She works with homeless students; she works with kids who come from families who can’t even support them in getting to school, and she makes sure all those things can happen so those things are known in the community,” Evans said.

But the best part is the kids often don’t realize they’re being transformed — much like the glass they’re making themselves.

“I call it secret. We don’t want the students to know,” Evans laughed. “They think it’s about the glass. This is about students being successful and removing barriers.”

And for more than 20 years, Hilltop Artists has done far more than that.

That’s why the stations of Bonneville Seattle, the Seattle Seahawks and Carter Subaru are honored to name Hilltop Artists as our charity of the month.

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Glass blowing transforming kids in Tacoma’s troubled Hilltop neighborhood