BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Dozens of friends, family members and supporters — including award-winning singer and actress Vanessa Williams — celebrated the grand opening of Reconnect Cafe in Bed-Stuy on Friday.
The socially conscious cafe, which actually opened in August, serves coffee and pastries to locals while keeping teens off the street by offering budding baristas a chance to earn a paycheck and learn life lessons.
Williams, best known for hits like "Save the Best for Last" and the Academy-award-winning song "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, came out to support co-owners Efrain Hernandez and Rev. Jim O'Shea, the latter of whom the singer called a "family friend."
"He told me he was working on this project, which sounded fantastic," Williams said. "It sounds like the neighborhood will literally eat it up. But it's also the perfect opportunity to do something positive, particularly for young men who need direction."
The cafe was the brainchild of Hernandez and O'Shea, who met while the priest was running an after-school program. After Hernandez was arrested for a drug offense in 2010, he decided to make a change in his life, and the two men came up with the idea for the cafe in order to help other kids in danger of following Hernandez's path.
Now running the cafe full time, Hernandez said Reconnect has thus far been a success, with former employees having moved on to other careers and focusing more on their education.
"It feels so great," Hernandez said. "Guys are talking about going to college, and they start to see a better future for themselves."
Teen workers on Friday sold Reconnect mugs and T-shirts while servers walked around with pastries and coffee, and mingled with patrons.
Bushwick Councilwoman Diana Reyna was on hand along with Bed-Stuy Councilman-elect Robert Cornegy to honor the cafe with a City Council citation.
Cornegy said trying to secure discretionary funds to help the work program was a "no-brainer" when he entered the council in 2014.
"As a way of helping young people, it's tremendous," Cornegy said. "Hopefully it's a model that can be replicated."
While teaching them those work skills is important, O'Shea said the business' real goal is to create a "culture of work" and support underserved kids who may not have a support system of their own.
And although O'Shea agrees that the business is a success, he also said that reaching out to kids can be a challenge.
"A lot of the guys [have] struggles," O'Shea said. "That's not easy, and I respect it."
While those challenges can be daunting, O'Shea said they're also to be expected, and won't deter the shop-owners from their stated mission.
"The most important thing is engaging the young guys," O'Shea said. "We're all in this to figure out how to create a better world."