A T-shirt shop grows in Brooklyn – and brings hope to young lives

Why We Wrote This

Often the value of a nonprofit endeavor isn’t so much about how it “scales up” as how it reaches down into its community. Here’s a group where young participants gain skills and then pass the baton of opportunity to peers. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Isaiah Jordan (left) learns silk-screen printing from Peter McGouran, production manager in Reconnect Brooklyn's shop.

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Jim O’Shea came to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood as a priest. And as he looked at the community’s needs, he longed to have an impact that went beyond words.

Many of the young men he saw around him on the streets of “Bed-Stuy” were disconnected – neither working nor in school. Often they fell into gang activity.

He launched a project called Reconnect Brooklyn. Serving one small group of these men at a time, the program offers a way up that starts with job skills, responsibility, and the paychecks that follow.  

The jobs are in T-shirt printing, with local nonprofits as the main customers. It’s a chance to gain both general and specific work skills. The biggest goal is to help the men feel they are needed. The modest scale of Reconnect reflects its vision – seeing social mobility as a neighborhood-level undertaking.

“I heard about it through friends. A lot of my friends came here, got on their feet, and got a job,” says CJ McCoy, one of the participants. “It opened doors for them. I’ve seen it.”  

Jim O’Shea came to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood as a priest. And as he looked at the community’s needs, he longed to have an impact that went beyond words.

Many of the young men he saw around him on the streets of “Bed-Stuy” were disconnected ​– neither working nor in school. Often they fell into gang activity.

“If you preach something but give no alternative, that’s just setting up for failure,” Father O’Shea says. 

The alternative he came up with is a project called Reconnect Brooklyn. For young people whose future is at risk, it offers a way up that starts with job skills, responsibility, and the paychecks that follow.  

Since 2011, Reconnect has been changing lives and building a healthier local community. It has employed more than 200 young men ​– often in the first jobs they’ve ever had. Currently, the jobs are in T-shirt printing, with local nonprofits as the main customers. For each small cohort that comes in, it’s a chance to gain specific skills as well as a sense of their own value. 

“In the neighborhood there was no real economy. They were small and family-owned businesses that were not looking to hire a guy on the corner,” says Father O’Shea. “That means kids were turning to an economy they can control, and that was drugs. That was the entry-level work. That’s where people were welcome and were taught the rules. It was setting them up for failure.”  

Ann Hermes/Staff
The Rev. Jim O’Shea developed Reconnect Brooklyn to bring jobs and work skills to people who otherwise might land in gangs or in prison.

“This was a start”

At Reconnect the biggest goal is to help these young men feel like they are needed. 

CJ McCoy says Father O’Shea’s program has changed his life in a very short time. “I needed to start somewhere, and this was a start,” says Mr. McCoy. 

Just a few weeks into their time here, the participants say it has already had a significant effect on their lives. “The energy is good and everyone is working together to get things done,” says Justin Monomatos, another member of the cohort.

At a basic level, it’s simply a place to learn. “Now is the time for them to make mistakes on the job, so they can learn from them so that does not happen when they are employed by people who might not have their best interest at heart,” says Father O’Shea. “The collaborative but forgiving environment is conducive to learning.”

The entire program lasts three months, and when it’s finished the cohort walks away with skills they can take back to school or to an employer, from habits of teamwork to customer service.

Reconnect helps with job placement as well. “Printing shirts is a whole other skill I can add on. It’s interesting,” says Musa Pough, a member of the cohort. 

Part of their recruitment process comes from the young men who go through the program. It’s a word-of-mouth situation. “These guys are doing their own vetting. I think it’s very powerful and helps build trust,” says Father O’Shea. It’s a sentiment members of the cohort echo. 

Upward mobility

“I heard about it through friends. A lot of my friends came here, got on their feet, and got a job,” says Mr. McCoy. “It opened doors for them. I’ve seen it.”  

The program is modest in scale, and that’s partly the point. Like some other modest-scale nonprofits, Reconnect is trying to reinvent social mobility as a neighborhood-level undertaking. The program is by and for the community, and each participant is a player. “The only ‘screening’ would be a series of interviews ensuring that expectations are on the table – we say two essentials are a willingness to work at our social enterprise and a willingness to work on yourself and community,” Father O’Shea says. “Candidates cannot be in school or working elsewhere. We prioritize those who have the least current options.”  

More than 80% of the young men who have been through the program are gainfully employed, he adds, describing one recent graduate who restored ties with his family and took a job at a CVS Pharmacy. Others have landed jobs in construction or retail. And some find work that directly applies their printmaking skills.

Father O’Shea works alongside Peter McGouran, the production manager, who used to run a commercial printing business of his own. He teaches the young men how to design graphics and then use dyes and screen printers to put them on shirts. 

“I teach the guys that every project that we do is their own. We are very much of the team mindset,” says Mr. McGouran. 

Customers include Southside United, an affordable housing advocacy group. 

“The impact Reconnect has had on the community at large is massive,” says Juan Ramos, director of Southside United. “People leave with skills and a support system that [they] did not have otherwise.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Some of the silk-screen prints produced in the group’s shop are on display.

Challenges along the path

As a business, Reconnect has faced its share of struggles. Its studio is a block away from a Citi Bike station ​– one of New York’s clearest indications of blossoming gentrification. Reconnect used to also operate a coffee shop in the neighborhood, called Reconnect Café, where the young men got a chance to work as well. But it was forced to close due to challenges with the landlord.

“On multiple occasions the ceiling would leak onto our countertops,” says Father O’Shea. When the landlord only patched up the ceiling, and plumbers said an actual fix would cost upwards of $20,000, he decided “it wasn’t worth the fight” to keep the cafe open. 

Although gentrification is changing the neighborhood, Reconnect’s mission here isn’t fading. In fact, quite the opposite. It is in talks to move to an expanded space, and the cafe may come back. 

In coming months Father O’Shea will depart for a full-time role at a Roman Catholic church in Manhattan. The Reconnect board is in the process of finding a replacement. It’s no easy task. But the group is committed to keep kindling promise in young lives.

And Father O’Shea’s legacy will remain. “Reconnect has already made a huge impact in my life,” Mr. Pough says. “And Father Jim is a big part of that.”

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