The Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg runs a program that teaches glassblowing to veterans. Researchers at the University of South Florida recently evaluated the program, known as Operation Art of Valor.
Patients at the hospital as well as local veterans in the community can come to the center on Sundays to learn glassblowing and interact with fellow vets.
The USF evaluation team observed a group of participants with a focus on determining how well the program worked and what more could be done to improve it.
Researchers found all vets were satisfied with the program and saw improvements in a number of areas, including self-confidence, social interactions and physical dexterity.
Glassblowing instructor Matthew Piepenbrock said the program was designed to help vets simply express themselves, and said it wasn't until organizers had serious talks with vets about how the program made them feel that they understood its impact.
"We all realized like, damn, this really is therapy,” he said. “And it's helpful that you don't approach it as a therapist, you don’t approach it like, ‘We’re going to be doing therapy,’ it’s like, ‘No we’re doing art.’ And by doing art, it becomes therapeutic and I think that’s the key component because it doesn’t build an immediate wall, there’s no expectations.”
Piepenbrock said he also wasn’t surprised to see participants experience physical benefits.
"There's a lot of kinesiology in glassblowing, the way we move our body determines the way the glass moves,” he explained. “So you need to understand not just art, but your body and the world around you, and to communicate to other people around you what's happening.”
Researchers praised the structure of the curriculum, which doesn’t end with veterans learning how to blow glass. It goes beyond that to train more experienced attendees how to instruct future participants in the craft.
Brian Fernandez is an example of a student who has since become a teacher. He served as a military firefighter in Iraq and got involved with the program at the Morean after moving to St. Petersburg.
He said glassblowing connects with him more than other art forms.
“As a military firefighter, I enjoy that heat, feeling that 2,000 degrees coming off is something that’s comforting but at the same time I can control it now, I’m on my own terms with it,” he said.
Fernandez said he focuses on his own glass work outside of the program because on Sundays he’s busy helping other vets create pieces.
USF evaluators found participants benefitted most when they worked directly with other members and encouraged more team projects in the future.
“Through the reflection it became obvious that teamwork was a catalyst for growth in all areas,” said Melanie Le Clainche, assessment coordinator for Institutional Research and Effectiveness at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
Le Clainche said there is more work to be done on the organizational side of things for the program to sustain. She said plenty of community-based programs that are initially successful fail because they lack critical elements like committed funding and documentation of their progress.
“It happens all the time, that’s why we have one-offs constantly all over this country, because there’s no sustained support, people just think, ‘Yeah this is great!’” she said.
“But we need to notice when a program is exceptional and then put behind it what it takes to transform people’s lives, and we’re talking about military veterans and patients who are giving a lot for us, so I think we can give back to them something that can bring some hope and satisfaction and just centering in their lives.”
Program organizers estimate it costs about $42,000 a year to run. So far Operation Art of Valor has relied on donations and volunteers.
Researchers recommended seeking out partnerships with other community organizations such as a local universities or Pinellas County to get additional support. They also encouraged organizers to repeatedly evaluate the program to collect evidence to secure grants or other funding.
This will especially be necessary if the program is to expand.
Matthew Piepenbrock said Bay Pines VA has expressed interest in getting involved with the program at the Morean. And he said he’s working with groups in Los Angeles and North Carolina to bring glassblowing to veterans in other states.