An orange-blue flame shimmers in the dark as students start to fill a small room at the NFL Youth Education Town in Liberty City.
Together, the children and young teens stare in amazement as Larry Whittaker stands behind a torch gently running a glass rod in and out of the fire as it slowly bends and melts into a small glistening bird.
As the glass figure takes shape, Whittaker looks up at his students and asks, “Who is next?”
All the children raise their hands.
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For two weeks, Whittaker has been teaching the art of glassblowing to students in fourth- to eighth-grade at the NFL YET in Gwen Cherry Park.
Communities in Schools of Miami, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping kids in school, operates from the center and hired Whittaker, 22, after receiving a grant of about $6,000 from the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs to bring art programs to its students.
Whittaker, who dropped out of high school and hung around bad crowds when he was younger, believes in CIS and the impact it’s having on the nearby community.
“I didn’t really have a foundation in life, so to me giving back to the community is important. If nobody is keeping you grounded and telling you, ‘make sure you go the right way,’ then sometimes you end up drifting off,” said Whittaker, who lived in Georgia and moved to Miami at the age of 12 after his father was arrested. “For me, I want to be in a situation where I can tell the kids, ‘do the right thing and be encouraged.’”
Bringing a local artist like Whittaker was important to Karla Brown-Cadet, project director of AmeriCorps, who was tasked with bringing in artists for the children at the center.
“It’s something totally different and so I thought it would be real interesting for the kids,” said Brown-Cadet, who observed the class progress and saw a connection Whittaker had made with the kids.
“Because he’s young, he relates to the kids so well and knows how to approach and talk to them. If they get noisy he knows how to pull it all back together again. They’re calling him ‘Mr. Larry’ like he’s been on staff with us for years.”
Teona Dorsey, 12, attended every one of Whittaker’s classes and has made small glass hearts.
“I think it’s amazing,” said Dorsey, who attends Florida International Academy and is in sixth grade. “When I grow older I’ll probably remember this and it will be a lifetime thing.”
This is exactly what Whittaker wanted to do when he decided teach the children.
“I like sharing with them and telling them there’s a better way and a better path,” Whittaker said.
The glassblowing classes finished Feb. 13, but for more information on the NFL YET program or Communities in School of Miami visit www.nflyetmiami.org.