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Coffee Shop Keeps Kids Off the Corners in Bed-Stuy

 Re-Connect Cafe, at 139 Tompkins Ave., provides economic opportunity as well as a new outlet for kids.
Efrain Hernandez, right, helps run Re-Connect Cafe in Bed-Stuy.
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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A new coffee shop in Bed-Stuy is helping kids stay off the street while also teaching them to become budding baristas and bakers.

Re-Connect Cafe, at 139 Tompkins Ave., is the brainchild of Efrain Hernandez, 28, and mentor Father Jim O'Shea, 52, designed to help kids aged 16 to 24 learn new life skills while also giving them an income stream that doesn't come from street corners.

"We're just basically empowering them to do positive [things], showing them how to make an honest buck," Hernandez said. "So they don't have to stand on the corners and do what everybody else does."

Hernandez and O'Shea met while the latter was running an after-school program. After a drug arrest and the death of his best friend in 2010, Hernandez said he decided to make a change in his own life and the lives of others like him in the community. 

"At one point in my life, I was disconnected, running the streets, not doing anything positive in my life," Hernandez said. "That was a wakeup call. It's not about me, it's about community."

O'Shea, meanwhile, realized the need to bring new opportunities to kids in Bed-Stuy while working with them firsthand at the now-closed Our Lady of Montserrat Church for 16 years, as the Daily News originally reported. 

There, he said he saw otherwise good kids get arrested, drop out of school and sometimes even become murder victims, just to make a little money.

"There's obviously astronomical unemployment for young men in this community," O'Shea said. "They're saying, 'I have to pay my bills.'"

So the two men came up with new ways for those kids to spend their time, and after a few years of volunteering and working pop-up farmers markets, Re-Connect cafe opened on July 29.

Now, in addition to learning how to make a cappuccino and earning a few dollars, they're learning communication skills and studying for a G.E.D.

"How can you start to change the culture," O'Shea said. "How do you create, on the same block, economic activity that can compete with negative entrepreneurship."

The cafe, which also includes a bakery in Bushwick where kids prepare food for the next day, has 15 employees, and the duo hopes to one day grow to as many as 300.

One of those employees is Lewis Alvarez, 20, who said he's glad to have an outlet to stay out of trouble.

"I'm not trying to be outside, doing absolutely nothing," Alvarez said. "I'm looking for a job."