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Project Fire offers peace forged in the flame

A master glassblower and a U. of C. clinical psychologist have developed an unconventional new treatment program for Chicago teens who have experienced violence-related trauma.

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Sweat is rolling off Alex Harris's neck, beading on his nose, and darkening his gray T-shirt. "I've never been this hot in my life," he says.

On a Saturday morning in June, the 17-year-old is working on a project in the hot shop of the Ignite Glass Studios on the 400 block of North Armour in West Town. He's making a decorative egg, like one he saw online. The spacious hot shop has two large furnaces, from which glassblowers gather molten glass onto blowpipes, and four other furnaces—"glory holes" in which they rewarm their pieces so they can shape them.

Harris is slim, and he has short hair and a smooth chin. He's often quiet, hiding a wry wit. He intends his finished egg to be displayed but not passed around: "It'll be the kind of thing you put in your grandmother's house in a little case with a light shining on it and a sign that says 'Do not touch.' "

The oblong globe on the end of his blowpipe enlarges each time he gathers more molten glass. He shapes the globe by rolling it on the marver, a metal table. The globe turns from orange to yellow as it cools. Soon he heads back to a furnace, twirling the end of the blowpipe in the glowing flames, as if he's roasting a marshmallow over a campfire. Periodically he rests the pipe over a cart and steps on a pedal, dousing the middle of the pipe with cold water. This allows him to hold it closer to the end with the egg, increasing his control.

At the marver again, he rolls the egg in powder-blue and cobalt glass powders, coloring its exterior.

N'Kosi Barber is helping him. When Harris blows into the pipe, Barber cradles the egg with a wad of wet newspaper. Steam rises from the wad. Barber, 22, has short hair and a pencil-thin beard outlining his jaw. love life loyalty is tattooed on the inside of a forearm.

Harris cradles the finished decorative egg. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Harris cradles the finished decorative egg.

"That looks great, Alex—I love that pattern," says Pearl Dick, a glassblowing instructor and Ignite's former artistic director. The egg is now about eight inches long and four inches in diameter. "Let's shape it with the paper," Dick says. "Heat it, give it a little bit of a stretch." She notices how Harris and Barber are sweating. "You guys need water or something?"

Dick, 38, is zealous about glassblowing—she'll tell you it's the perfect pastime for most anyone. But she thinks it's especially well suited for young people who, like Harris and Barber, live in poor neighborhoods where violence is rampant. It offers a thrill, but a far safer and healthier one, she says, than the ones offered by the streets.

"It's such a rush, working with material that's 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit," Dick says. "It demands focus­—you need to put everything else at the door or you can get hurt." Because most projects can't be done solo, glassblowing also encourages collaboration and communication, she says.

Harris first came to Ignite last fall, and soon began working for Dick part-time. He's nearly as keen about glassblowing as she is. "It amps up your awareness," he says, his finished egg resting in an annealer, an oven that cools completed pieces gradually so they won't break. "When I'm working in the hot shop, I get in a zone. The work consumes me.

"I have a lot of energy," he says. "If I could pump it out and make it into drinks, I would make a lot of money. Often I just need something to do during the day. I think that's true of a lot of young people—we have so much energy, and there's not enough to do, so we go off and get into trouble, because trouble brings adrenaline."

Harris is part of a new program at Ignite this summer, designed to help teens who have experienced violence-related trauma. Project Fire was conceived, with Dick's help, by Brad Stolbach, a University of Chicago clinical psychologist who specializes in childhood trauma. Barber, who's been shot at but never wounded, is one of the two mentors; the other mentor, 31-year-old Andrew Neswick, was shot in the head 14 years ago. Barber and Neswick are helping Harris and three other teens develop their glassblowing skills. The three other teens all are recent gunshot victims. Harris himself hasn't been shot, but he's still struggling to recover from the murder of his brother, who was gunned down in his presence a year ago.

N'Kosi Barber, psychologist Brad Stolbach, Alex Harris, and glassblower Pearl Dick collaborate at Ignite Glass Studios. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • N'Kosi Barber, psychologist Brad Stolbach, Alex Harris, and glassblower Pearl Dick collaborate at Ignite Glass Studios.

The mood was cheerful inside the small apartment on 47th Street in Kenwood that early Sunday afternoon in May 2014. Harris lived in the flat with his brother, Aaron Rushing, and their grandmother, Vicky Harris. The three had just come home from church. "We were in the kitchen, and the boys said, 'Grandma, you need us to do anything?' And 'I'll take the garbage out,' " Vicky Harris recalls.

Alex and Aaron were only ten months apart: Alex was nearly 17, and Aaron was three days shy of his 16th birthday. Vicky, who was 71, had raised them since they were toddlers. "They were like twins—they did everything together," she says. When they were little and Aaron got into trouble or was upset about something, "Alex would say, 'I got to go bring my brother some joy and happiness,' and he'd do something silly to make him laugh.' "

The boys asked their grandmother if they could go out for a while. She said yes.

A half hour later, around 3 PM, Alex and Aaron were in the parking lot of a bank at 47th and Cottage Grove, a few blocks west of their home. Two witnesses would tell police afterward that Aaron was selling marijuana in the lot. Aaron, who was five foot six and 152 pounds and wore his hair in dreads, had on a red hooded sweatshirt and blue denim pants. The witnesses said he got into an argument with another black male about the quality of the pot he was selling. The other black male pulled out a gun, fired once, and fled on foot.

The bullet struck Aaron in the abdomen on the right side, pierced his liver and aorta, and exited his back on the left side.

An ambulance brought him to the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, where he was rushed into surgery. Vicky Harris got a call from police and raced to Comer. At the hospital, "I was thinking, OK, we're going to have to nurse him back to health, it's going to be a little rough, maybe he'll be in a wheelchair," she says. But when the somber doctor who talked with her said "aorta," she knew. Aaron was pronounced dead at 6:11 PM. The detectives who'd been interviewing Alex at a police station brought him to the hospital shortly after Aaron died. Alex was inconsolable.

Aaron had taken up guitar when he was 11. He schooled himself with how-to DVDs and YouTube videos, and soon he was amazing his family and friends with his prowess. He was accepted into Chicago High School for the Arts in 2012. "His skill and creativity were unmistakable" to his classmates and teachers, Tribune music critic Howard Reich wrote in a profile of Aaron after he was killed.

In the first weeks after Aaron's death, "You could see the pain on Alex like a coat," Vicky says. But he wouldn't talk to her about it, and she didn't know how to comfort him. She had her own grief to contend with, and she could only imagine how hard it was for Alex, given how close he was to Aaron and the fact that he'd witnessed the shooting.

He began coming home late—after midnight sometimes. She told him the behavior couldn't continue. "He said, 'What do you want me to do? I hate being here.'" Alex's bedroom was down the hall from Aaron's; Alex told his grandmother it stung just to walk past it. "I talked myself out," Vicky says. "I thought, God, please tell me what to say."

Her alderman, Will Burns, had visited her after Aaron was killed. In July she called his office and got a referral to a psychologist—Stolbach. He's clinical director of Healing Hurt People-Chicago, a program for youth who have experienced trauma because of violence. Alex told her he wouldn't go. Vicky tried to coax him. "I said, 'Look, just go with me this one time,' " she says. "We're driving down, I'm getting ready to go on Lake Shore Drive, and he jumps out of the car and says, 'I'm not going. I don't care if I die—I don't want to talk about it.'"

He was gone for two days. When he finally came home, he said he'd been wandering the streets and sleeping in hallways. Vicky told him she wouldn't force him to meet with the psychologist. "I'd rather have you wrapped up in that grief and alive," she said.

But Stolbach soon made a follow-up call to Vicky. She told him Alex still wasn't doing well. He asked her if Alex would talk with him briefly on the phone; Alex was willing. “This is not about saying there’s something wrong with you,” Stolbach recalls assuring him. He explained to Alex that he talked to kids who'd experienced sudden losses—about their reactions to them, and about how they saw their future. "I said, 'I just would like to sit down and learn a little more about you, and see if there are ways that we can help.' "

Alex gave in. They made an appointment, and Alex kept it.

Glassblowing instructor Pearl Dick and University of Chicago clinical psychologist Brad Stolbach created Project Fire. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Glassblowing instructor Pearl Dick and University of Chicago clinical psychologist Brad Stolbach created Project Fire.

Exposure to violence, either as a direct victim or as a witness, can overtax the nervous system and cause lasting psychological harm. Not infrequently, it leads to post-traumatic stress disorder, whose symptoms often include nightmares, flashbacks, impulsivity, aggressiveness, and difficulty focusing. PTSD also increases the risk of a host of long-term illnesses—not only psychiatric, but also cardiac, immunological, and gastrointestinal. It's a special problem for youth in poor urban neighborhoods, who are exposed to violence frequently.

Stolbach, who's worked with traumatized youth on the south side for years, started Healing Hurt People in 2013. It operates out of Comer and Stroger hospitals. Modeled on a program in Philadelphia, it seeks to disrupt the pattern of violence that PTSD often exacerbates. A 2008 study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that people with PTSD were significantly more likely to threaten others with a gun than people with similar profiles who didn't have PTSD. Shootings also may prompt retaliation—perpetuating a cycle of violent encounters and reprisals. Because victims of violence are sometimes involved in gangs and drug dealing, the crisis that leads youth to Healing Hurt People offers an opportunity for intervention that goes beyond the crisis itself, Stolbach says. "Every one of these kids will tell you, 'I'm not gonna hang in the streets anymore,' but to do it is a different thing. And to do it without support is very hard."

Most of the youth served by Healing Hurt People are beset by much more than PTSD, Stolbach says. They tend to be fatalistic about their futures, which Stolbach says is hardly surprising given how many of their peers have died young or gone to prison, and how few adults around them have jobs paying more than minimum wage. Stolbach believes most trauma victims could benefit from psychotherapy, but his program mainly works on a more basic level. Clients are taught relaxation techniques for alleviating traumatic symptoms. In individual and group sessions, they're encouraged to talk about their daily lives and stresses, but also to think about what lies ahead for them. Stolbach wants his clients to know "that they matter—and that they can actually have choices and some control over their lives." He helps them with tasks that move them in that direction, taking them to doctor's appointments, for instance, or making sure they're enrolled in school. And he tries to help with what many clients tell him is their foremost need: finding a job.

Poverty-related problems made life challenging for Alex Harris long before Aaron was killed. His grandmother raised Alex, Aaron, and their older brother because their mother had a drug addiction and their fathers were unwilling to step in. Divorced and short of money herself, Vicky Harris and the three boys lived in an abandoned building in Englewood the first year they were together. Later they lived in a poor neighborhood on the southeast side, marked by "gangs, guns, fights, killings," Alex told me. When I first met Alex, at his home in February, I asked him to describe himself. "The comeback kid," he said without hesitating. "I've been bouncing back from things my whole life. I'm pretty good at coping. That's what I've always had to do—cope and fight."

He said he agreed to meet with Stolbach because he got tired of his grandmother constantly hassling him to do it. "It was beneficial for both of us. Gave her peace of mind. Got things I needed to say off of me." Stolbach is "an all-around good guy," Harris said. "He cracks jokes. He listens to you. He's not judgmental."

His talks with Stolbach are "not like a therapy session," Harris went on. "It's like sitting down with my little brother and going, 'All right, bro, this week I got into an argument with this person.' 'All right, how did you handle this argument?' " Talking with Stolbach "helps me think clearer," he said. "It opens up my mind about what I need to do to move forward."

Harris stressed to me—as he had to Stolbach—that he didn't want to dwell on Aaron's death, or discuss the circumstances. He didn't want that to become "the front page of the paper" in his life. He said that whenever he starts thinking about what happened to Aaron, "I suppress the thoughts, because they make me feel cold and calloused." But he didn't want to suppress them completely, he said. People who do that "go into a shell, and no one can get in."

Harris attends an alternative school, and doesn't enjoy it much. ("It's just something I have to go through.") He told Stolbach when they met that what would really improve his life was a job.

Around that time, a pediatrician at Comer mentioned to Stolbach that she was learning glassblowing at Ignite from Pearl Dick. The doctor found it therapeutic and thought it could be helpful for the young people Stolbach's program served. Stolbach met with Dick and took a glassblowing lesson himself. Soon after, he arranged for Harris to meet with Dick.

Alex Harris and N'Kosi Barber work together at Ignite Glass Studios. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Alex Harris and N'Kosi Barber work together at Ignite Glass Studios.

When Harris first visited Ignite, he was struck by the glass pieces on display in the waiting room. "I was like, 'Wow, I want to try to make this, I want to try to make that.' "

Initially he participated in a program at Ignite through After School Matters, a nonprofit that offers high schoolers a variety of out-of-school activities. "It was scary at first, working around so much heat and knowing you can easily get burned," he says. But the teachers at Ignite "are really encouraging," he says. "Whatever you want to make, if you put your mind to it, people will help you make it."

He especially appreciated Dick's teaching style. "It's like, 'Just tell me what you want to do, and I'll guide you to the best of my ability.'"

As Harris's skills improved, his confidence grew. "You make something, look at it, and you give yourself a pat on the back. My friends' moms, they'd see pictures of things I made, and they were like, 'How do you do this? How do you get color on there? How do you get it in a certain shape?'"

Harris got a stipend for his After School Matters participation. Dick knew he wanted to work more hours, and this spring, when an artist from the United Kingdom needed 3,500 glass orbs for a project, she hired Harris to make some of them. Harris has been coming to Ignite two or three evenings a week.

Dick describes Harris as "very thoughtful, intelligent, and sensitive. He feels things deeply." She says it's clear he finds glasswork "meditative, something he can lose himself in.

"We've also given him another community to be a part of, which is a goal in our work with these kids," she says. "With his friends, he can say, 'Guys, I'm out, I gotta go to work.'"

Project Fire is designed to extend such benefits to others. Ignition Community Glass, a group whose mission is providing more glass art opportunities for youth, is a partner in the initiative, and its executive director, Trish Tullman, helped create Project Fire. The pilot program, with a dozen four-hour sessions over eight weeks, is also a research project, funded by U. of C.'s Urban Health Initiative. The teens participating are all clients of Healing Hurt People-Chicago. They were interviewed by research assistants as the project got under way, and will be interviewed again when it ends, and several weeks afterward. But Project Fire is also a way to give part-time jobs to teens who can really use them, Stolbach says. The participants are paid $10 an hour for the sessions and $50 for each interview.

Besides jobs, the teens also need to build healthy friendships, Stolbach says, and Project Fire is designed to foster that as well. Each session begins with a "community meeting"—a brief group discussion. After three hours in the hot shop, Stolbach leads another discussion, over pizza, about the impact of traumatic violence.

At an orientation in late June, Stolbach, Dick, the two mentors, and three of the youths sat around a conference table in a meeting room at Ignite as Stolbach welcomed everyone to the program. (Harris wasn't at this session.) "Everyone who's in this program has been traumatized in some way by violence," he said. "We're hoping this will support your recovery from what you've been through."

He asked the three teens, all of whom are 16, to tell the group why they were participating in Project Fire. Perhaps because this was the first session and they were nervous, they echoed each other:

"It's something to keep me off the street from time to time."

"I need to get myself involved in better activities."

"It gives me time to stay off the streets and do positive things."

Dick told the group she was excited but also anxious. "I just really hope you guys like this stuff and have a good time while you're here. I love glassblowing. I've been teaching it a long time, and I've seen the good it can do. When I'm angry it's something I can turn to to calm me down."

One of the teens, a skinny kid in a black T-shirt who was swiveling incessantly in his chair, paused to ask if he'd be allowed to sell what he made during Project Fire. Dick assured him he could do whatever he wanted with his pieces.

The youth noted, with eyebrows arched, that a piece on display in Ignite's waiting room had a listed price of $4,800. "So can we make some stuff and put it up here with the price?" he asked Dick.

"We'd be happy to," Dick said.

"Y'all get fifty-fifty?"

"No, you can keep it all."

But Dick added that it took time for an artist to develop. She asked the teens if any of them had heard of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. The skinny youth said he hadn't, then added with a sheepish grin, "But I know a couple Ninja Turtles with those names."

Stolbach told me last week, four sessions into Project Fire, that things have been going well. Harris and the three other teens seem very engaged, he said. They'd made paperweights, cups, and bowls. They'd also "developed some pretty strong connections with each other." In the community meetings, Harris had "made some of the most important contributions, talking about what he's been through and how he's tried to manage it." The kid who thought of Michelangelo ​as a Ninja Turtle ​was now talking about a career in glassblowing. An eight-week program was obviously not going to solve all of the problems of the participants, Stolbach said, "but it'll help them see possibilities."

Harris said he and N'Kosi Barber have talked about making a glass brain with chains on it during Project Fire—the chains representing stress.

Harris plans to join the navy after he finishes high school next year, in part because it would be a way to fund his college education. He'd like to become a trauma medic. "It opens up opportunities for me to see the world, and to give some people a second chance at life." He said he wanted to be a medic even before Aaron was killed, but Aaron's death accentuated his interest. If he'd had the training, "I think [there] was more things I could have done while the paramedics were on their way."

A Chicago Police Department spokesperson said the investigation of the Aaron Rushing murder is continuing.

"Instead of looking at it as a great loss, I look at it as more of a victory," Harris said of his brother's death. "Now he doesn't have to worry about Chicago life. He doesn't have to think about, 'Where is my next meal coming from?' He doesn't have to look over his shoulder."

He said the passage of time had hardly eased the pain he felt from Aaron's death. "I mean, either way it's gonna feel like it was yesterday. I just have to keep going. I know what happened that day, and I know I can't go back and change it. But I can change what I do in the future."  v

Alexandria Johnson helped research this story, which was produced as part of the Social Justice News Nexus, an initiative at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Learn more at sjnnchicago.org. The Social Justice News Nexus is supported by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. 


Correction: This article has been updated to reflect additional information about Ignition Community Glass and Project Fire.

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