Jake Marritt was one of many students who contemplated dropping out of school. During his junior year at Wilson High School, he had no idea of what he wanted to do in life, and he came pretty close to dropping out altogether.
That is until a friend took Marritt into a period of his glassblowing class one day.
After that, Marritt took up the art form during his senior year, and now, a year later, he has graduated and has a mission for his future.
"Once I got into glass, I didn't miss a day," he said.
Hilltop Artists in Residence, Tacoma (HART) is the non-profit group that has sponsored the glassblowing programs for students at Wilson High School and Jason Lee Middle School for the past 14 years. Its mission, which is to connect young people to better futures, is exemplified in students like Marritt - and it only took him one year.
Some students start with HART when they are 12 years old and participate every day until they are 19.
This means during school hours, after school hours and in the summer, to keep them on track, off the streets and engaged in something meaningful.
The summer program, which has run along with HART since it's inception in 1994, is much like the after-school program in that it keeps students occupied during off-time.
"In the summer, a lot of the Jason Lee kids don't really have anything to do. They probably get in more trouble that way," said hot shop manager Greg Piercy, who has worked with HART for 14 years.
HART is free for any student all year round. In the summer, even more students come from areas outside of Tacoma for the one-of-a-kind experience.
This year, HART has doubled the number of students in the program as well as created a more structured curriculum.
"We're trying to reach out to as many kids as possible. It touches kids in a way like nothing else does," said Kit Evans, executive director of HART.
Any student can enroll in one or both of HART's summer session, which offers classes in glassblowing, bead making and fusion.
There are still a few spaces available in the bead making and fusion classes, but as always, glassblowing has a long waiting list.
Of the students enrolled in the summer program, most of them do come from Tacoma, with about half of all the students coming straight from Jason Lee.
Eighty-three percent of the students at Jason Lee are on free and reduced-price lunches. That is a common indicator of poverty in the family, and also teens that may be more at risk for drug use, gang activity and dis-involvement in school - and those are the students that HART believes it can help the most.
Evans noted low-income students are not the only ones who face those issues.
"We consider all kids today to be at risk," Evans said.
Piercy said when he first started working with HART he "realized it had very little to do with glass. It had to do with mentoring and hanging with the kids.
"I think it's really important that our organization goes the whole year and doesn't take the summer off. There's still a connection there... it's very beneficial."
Production manager Jessica Hogan works closely with the advanced students who are commissioned for their work, which is often displayed in public galleries.
She noted that the HART program is a very special place for the students she has come to know over the years.
"I don't think there's another program like it," she said.
As far as summer camps go, Tacoma School of the Arts and YMCA offer a variety of art-focused learning experiences throughout the summer in the area, but they range in price from $150 to $250, limiting the demographic range of students who can participate.
As far as the rest of the year, HART is special in that it can become something a student is involved with for up to seven years, getting them a competitive edge if they do choose to pursue glass art as a career.
It can even change the life of a student who has been involved only one year.
After nine months of blowing glass, Marritt has come a long way from a near dropout. He now is serious about pursuing glass artistry as a career.
And Marritt has done well for himself. The naturally artistic teenager caught on right away, and after only a year's experience, he was sought as an assistant for well-known local glass artist Makoto Ando.
"For once in my life, I have a goal to work toward," he said.
For more information about HART programs, or summer openings, visit www.hilltopartists.org or call (253) 571-7670.
The first class session begins June 30.