Diocesan News

Nonprofit Group Helps Young men ‘Reconnect’ and Prosper

Edwing Lachapelle (left) works at the print machine in the graphics department under the watchful eye of Trace Mebane. (Photos: Paula Katinas)

JAMAICA ESTATES — Growing up on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant at a time when gun violence was a regular occurrence, Edwing Lachapelle never imagined he would be working on a farm on the grounds of a monastery in Jamaica Estates.

Yet, here he is. At the age of 26, Lachapelle is enjoying the fruits of success after turning his life around with the support of Reconnect, a nonprofit founded in Bed-Stuy in 2010 to help young men ages 14-24 get off the streets, learn skills and get jobs.

For Lachapelle, Bed-Stuy was a mixed bag. 

“There was violence but there was a lot of fun too,” he said.

As far as he could see, however, there weren’t any job prospects for unskilled, non-college graduates. Adding to the despair was the fact that young men in the community didn’t have a good relationship with the NYPD.

“I think a lot about social justice. I used to get stopped a lot. I wasn’t doing anything but the cops would stop me,” he recalled. “It has an effect on you psychologically. Now, I think the cops do a good job, but back then, I didn’t.”

Lachapelle became involved with Reconnect nine years ago when he was 17. He had heard of the group and walked up to the organization’s founders Father Jim O’Shea C.P. and Efrain Hernandez on the street and asked them for a job. Hernandez was the brother of a friend.

Lachapelle started out as a barista in a cafe the organization operated on Tompkins Avenue. 

“It was one of the best jobs you could have. I met all kinds of people and liked talking to them. It taught me to connect with people,” he said. 

Originally called Reconnect Brooklyn because it originally operated in that borough, the organization is now called Reconnect and is located at Thomas Berry Place, a retreat center on the grounds of the Passionist Monastery on Edgerton Blvd. Father O’Shea is now the provincial of the Passionists for the Eastern U.S.

Reconnect still operates a cafe, although it’s located at Thomas Berry Place and not in Bed-Stuy. There is also a graphics shop where young men design T-shirts. The men do construction work, too. The organization helps approximately 50 men each year.

Other opportunities include working in the kitchen with chef Anthony O’Connor. They will soon be working on an organic farm on the property. Lachapelle will be directing the operation, working in close consultation with O’Connor, selecting the vegetables to be planted, and then managing the Reconnect guys who will be harvesting the crops.

The farm is bringing everything back full circle for Father O’Shea and Hernandez. The two men started Reconnect by selling produce on the street. They soon started hiring young men from the neighborhood to join them. 

“We told them, ‘It’s a good way to make honest money,’ ” Father O’Shea recalled. “People don’t turn to dealing drugs because they want to. They do it because they feel there’s nothing else out there for them. We wanted to show them there was another way.”

Efrain Henandez has become a master at making the perfect cappuccino. He now manages the Reconnect Cafe.

As gentrification took hold in Bed-Stuy and newcomers started moving into the neighborhood, Father O’Shea saw an opportunity and opened Reconnect Cafe in 2013, hiring young men like Lachapelle to work as baristas. Hernandez was the cafe’s manager.

The cafe’s success led Reconnect Brooklyn to open a bakery. One of the tasty treats customers couldn’t get enough of was something called the Bed-Stuy Cookie, a chewy concoction made of oats, caramel, and chocolate chips. 

“We used to say it was like the neighborhood, tough on the outside and sweet on the inside,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez, 37, also credits Reconnect with changing his life. He grew up in Bed-Stuy. 

“It was a great community of folks. As a kid, you really don’t have any responsibilities. As you get older, you want to do positive things,” he said. “But there’s really not that many opportunities in the community for youth to earn money. The opportunities are scarce.”

He met Father O’Shea when he was 13 years old. The priest was running an after-school program at P.S. 23. 

“If you did your homework after school, you got to play basketball for two hours,” Hernandez said with a smile. “Father O’Shea saw I was a good basketball player. When I was 16, he gave me my first opportunity to work there. Two days a week, I taught 10-year-olds how to play basketball.”

When Father O’Shea wanted to start Reconnect Brooklyn, Hernandez worked alongside him to make it happen.

These days, Hernandez mans the front desk, runs the cafe and gift shop (where the T-shirts are sold), and serves as a security guard. 

“Whatever I have to do, I do,” he said.

Hernandez and Lachapelle no longer live in Bed-Stuy. Lachapelle lives in Queens. Hernandez moved to Pennsylvania but stays in Queens four days a week to work at Reconnect.

Lachapelle is grateful for the opportunities Reconnect has given him. 

“It helped me see the world for what it really is,” he said.