Reconnect Brooklyn: A Second Chance for At-Risk Youth

A volunteer works at Reconnect Brooklyn

This New York neighborhood, formerly a place of drugs and crime, is making a comeback. Father Jim O’Shea’s entrepreneurial movement has been instrumental in its recovery.

By his own description, Efrain Hernandez was “a terror” growing up in a single-parent home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York City. He did what he wanted to do and drifted into selling drugs to have some money in his pocket. Eventually, Hernandez was arrested and spent 18 months in prison.

These days, Hernandez serves as associate director of Reconnect Brooklyn, an entrepreneurial movement of young men in his old neighborhood. How he traveled from where he was then to where he is now is due in large part to one man: Passionist Father Jim O’Shea.

Filling a Need

New Yorkers and others who haven’t visited “Bed-Stuy” since the neighborhood began to gentrify in the past decade may still think of the area as one where selling drugs is the most common type of entry-level employment. Times have changed—a little. And Reconnect Brooklyn can take some credit for helping the neighborhood and its people come out of the shadows. Father O’Shea is the cofounder and executive director of Reconnect Brooklyn. He describes it as a neighborhood movement that offers an opportunity for young men to access employment and learn how to work at one of several businesses Reconnect Brooklyn has started since 2014.

Father O’Shea first encountered the neighborhood in 1997, when he was assigned to Our Lady of Montserrat, a church that has since merged with another parish. Drugs and violent crime had taken a toll on Bed-Stuy, and Father O’Shea used his background in social work to develop several initiatives for at-risk youth. “There was nothing for them to do but get into trouble. I saw bad outcomes for good guys,” he says.

One of his early activities was an after-school program where young people could play basketball after they finished their homework. The lanky Father O’Shea was often on the court with the students. One of his first basketball players was Efrain Hernandez.

In 2010, Father O’Shea started the Vernon Avenue project, an organization whose mission was engaging neighborhood youth through entrepreneurship, education, and leadership. “There was no entry-level work, and there were a lot of unprepared young people. You had to imagine there was a place for them in the world,” he says.

The initial idea was to take the skills they knew from selling drugs on the street corner to make money legally and without the deadly consequences. “I hired four or five guys from the corner,” Father O’Shea says. “We grew vegetables in a community garden and sold them at stands outside churches.” They also bought vegetables from a wholesale market to supplement what they produced. “We didn’t make any money,” he recalls with a laugh, “but it was a way to start working on skills.”

Other ideas followed, including a small bakery specializing in fresh cookies. The sweet treats were also sold at local churches and a retreat house. Looking at the parade of young professionals moving into the area, one of the bakers observed that the newcomers would likely want to buy coffee, so Reconnect Café was opened, a first for the neighborhood. Later, a fellow moving out of the area offered to sell his T-shirt printing equipment. Voilà! Reconnect Graphics was born.

Reconnect Brooklyn’s businesses, or social enterprises, “are the schools of formation and connection. Without them, the conversation doesn’t begin,” Father O’Shea says. “It’s not easy to gather people who are socially disconnected.”

High Expectations

In the neighborhood, one-third of the residents live in poverty, only 30 percent of students read at a grade-school level, and the school-to-prison pipeline is well-honed, Father O’Shea says. “It’s a familiar story: Good guys disconnect from school, start doing other things, stay on the streets, and are either locked up or killed.” For a long time, the area was so violent that young men risked being shot if they walked down the wrong block.

Reconnect Brooklyn’s social enterprises are places where people can learn about business and work on themselves at the same time. The process is designed to help access employment and ensure that each participant learns how to work. Father O’Shea says the entrepreneurial businesses distinguish Reconnect Brooklyn from more traditional job-training programs.

Despite the relaxed atmosphere at the businesses, Reconnect Brooklyn’s methods are clear and unambiguous. Groups, or “cohorts,” of seven to 12 young men ages 17-23 begin their three-month experience at the same time. Some have never left the neighborhood; others have served jail time; many are in unstable living situations; most have a lot of stress.

But each participant is expected to arrive punctually at the work site, prepared to start the day, wearing the Reconnect Brooklyn uniform, and not carrying a cell phone. His work is evaluated every week by the manager of the enterprise, and he has a weekly meeting with a social worker, a mentor, and a program director whose focus is education.

The support is critical to get the young men to the next step, which may be further training, employment elsewhere, or school. “We give them their first experience and the opportunity to get their legs steady. They get a lot of attention,” Father O’Shea says.

But the path is rarely straight or smooth. He says it would be unfair and delusional to expect the youth partners to have it all together in three months. “It’s not just a tune-up that is needed. Healing is a lifelong process.”

The young men work 20–25 hours a week at minimum wage. If they arrive late, or in the wrong outfit, they are sent home. “It’s not a game. This is life. You have to work. If you can’t smile and show up on time, you can’t get a job,” Father O’Shea says.

“I say: ‘You guys are creating your own legacy in the neighborhood. This is not Father O’Shea giving you something. You have to figure out how to work with other people, play your part, and actualize yourself.'”

Moving Forward

The educational component of Reconnect Brooklyn helps young men prepare to matriculate at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. It also works closely with Jesuit Worldwide Learning, whose aim is to bring higher education to the margins, in part via online learning.

Reconnect Brooklyn operates on a slim annual budget of approximately $600,000, drawn from the businesses, an annual fund-raising dinner, a municipal contract for wage subsidies, foundation grants, and private donations. The Passionists of St. Paul of the Cross Province have also been generous and supportive, Father O’Shea says. In addition, the Ignatian Volunteer Corps has placed seasoned professionals with Reconnect Brooklyn, including Ron Oberdick, who has been the chief financial officer for five years and also serves as a mentor and tutor. Last year, Reconnect Brooklyn drew on the talents of an intern from the Fordham School of Social Work.

But it is Father O’Shea’s vision and tenacity that have kept Reconnect Brooklyn moving forward. In the early days, he connected with youth through parish-based basketball and church activities. “The church was a nice intersection with people on the margins,” he explains. “But the church is less visible in the community now. The youth have no connection to it and there is no common vocabulary through the church. How do you talk about morality and ethics when people don’t know the Ten Commandments?

“I’m not shy about talking about faith,” he says. “These are children of God, and that’s why I’m here—to help them see that in themselves. The world is drenched with God and signs that remind us of God—Reconnect Brooklyn is one of them.”

A Changing Neighborhood

Efrain Hernandez cofounded Reconnect Brooklyn with Father O’Shea. He is now the associate director and recently joined the organization’s board. He participated in many of Father O’Shea’s activities, including a Skills Academy that taught basketball and teamwork to local teens.

“It was the best thing for me—to sit down and take time to think about what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

During Hernandez’s incarceration, Father O’Shea visited him twice a month. In the visitors room of the prison at Rikers Island, they developed the idea of Reconnect Brooklyn. “I jumped on board because I believe in the mission,” Hernandez says. It was a good decision because, among other things, “The people I grew up with here are either dead or in prison.”

According to recent reports, gun violence and gang activity in Brooklyn are declining sharply thanks, in part, to programs like Reconnect Brooklyn.

The neighborhood has changed dramatically since Hernandez was a youth. On the positive side, streets and parks are no longer littered with drug syringes, and the most prominent local crack house is now home to a real estate firm. The success of Reconnect Brooklyn’s trending enterprises is directly related to gentrification, an irony that is not lost on Hernandez. It squeezed out many longtime residents, including Hernandez himself, who now commutes from Manhattan.

“Landlords charge millennials $1,000 a month for an apartment the size of a jail cell,” he explains, and the frequent turnover of tenants bumps the rent to unaffordable levels for everyone. “Old folks and individuals with scarce opportunities feel it the worst. A lot of people are ending up in shelters.” A federally funded housing voucher system provides relief to low-income residents, but many landlords now refuse to participate in the program, he says.

Working and Learning

The group’s first brick-and-mortar business was Reconnect Bakery. It was an upbeat place that provided a learning experience for workers, but it closed after the death of one of its lead organizers.

At the second enterprise, Reconnect Café, a local coffee roaster helped young men learn the business, from ordering products and supplies to serving and cleaning. The café sold coffee, sandwiches, and pastries in a cozy storefront. But plumbing issues elsewhere in the building caused the shop to flood and its ceiling to leak. The café closed for repairs and re-opened several times before Reconnect Brooklyn decided to “cut its losses and move out,” according to Father O’Shea.

Reconnect Graphics was established in 2017. The popular enterprise designs and prints T-shirts for organizations and special events. It shares space with other local nonprofit groups in several stately brownstone buildings.

Reuben Felder and Jaben “Meek” Taylor were in one of the first cohorts at Reconnect Graphics. Felder says that the creative work and quiet space help him with his other interest, writing and performing music. “When I come here, there’s peace, and no one’s arguing with each other. The work’s not hard, but you have to be dedicated and want to get it done,” he says.

Taylor, also an aspiring musical performer, heard about Reconnect Graphics from a fellow member of a local car club. It was an opportunity to pick up a new skill in his quest “to be bigger than what I am now,” he says. After his time with Reconnect, he landed a job in construction.

Reconnect Graphics expanded in 2018. With help from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, it designed and built a pop-up shop for use at the street fairs and festivals that are popular throughout New York City. The shop was decorated by a prominent graffiti artist and features T-shirts and cold brew coffee. There is talk about adding Reconnect Bakery’s popular cookie to the mix too. Hernandez, who formerly managed Reconnect Café, is running the new venture. He is being mentored by someone with sales experience and will eventually mentor others.

“The overall movement is healthy. It was difficult to lose the café, which was our signature enterprise, but we are always responding and looking for opportunities,” Father O’Shea says.

Community Connections

More than 150 young men have come through Reconnect Brooklyn. Many return to check in, share a meal, or ask for help. “That’s the kind of community you want to create—a place where people can come back, be welcomed and taken seriously, and know that someone will care,” Father O’Shea says.

He describes one former worker who subsequently spent two years in jail and was then “dumped in a men’s shelter, a horrible place to be.” He found his way back to Reconnect Brooklyn, where he was welcomed and given money to buy pants for a job interview.

Reconnect Brooklyn has evolved to meet the changing realities of the neighborhood and the young men it serves. But the organization that Father O’Shea says is “built on the richness of relationships” may soon be challenged in a new way: His Passionist colleagues elected Father O’Shea provincial in May 2018. The province includes eastern Canada, the eastern United States, Jamaica, Haiti, and parts of the West Indies. Even as Father O’Shea’s considerable provincial leadership duties draw him away from the day-to-day world of Reconnect Brooklyn, he is confident in the organization and its ability to morph as needed.

“From the start, Reconnect Brooklyn has been doing what it was supposed to do: being a low-to-the-ground connection with young men who are having a difficult time in a difficult neighborhood,” he says. “And if it wasn’t for the Passionists, this would never have started. It has always been a point of pride for the province.”

Father O’Shea is sure the many people invested in Reconnect Brooklyn will advance the group’s straightforward mission. “This is the reality of human growth: You start and stop and figure it out and find better ways,” he says. “And this is what we say about lives too—it’s not about mapping it out, but figuring it out.”

Click here to learn more about Reconnect Brooklyn.

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