Students from De La Salle Vocational celebrate after a June 15 graduation ceremony. The school, an outreach of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, provides academic and technical training to at-risk youth. (Photo by Gina Christian)

Ten young men have turned their tassels and rolled up their sleeves to begin work in a range of trades, thanks to a program offered by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS).

The youth were awarded their high school diplomas on June 15 by De La Salle Vocational, the day treatment center of St. Gabriel’s System in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Founded in 1974, the Bensalem-based school provides educational, vocational and behavioral support to adjudicated young men aged 16 to 18. Through its year-round academic program, De La Salle instructs approximately 300 youth annually, conferring high school diplomas and vocational certifications in building maintenance, carpentry, auto services and culinary arts.

“I’m looking forward to making business cards,” said Bysil Collins, whose carpentry studies enabled him to build a computer module, a hanging closet and a work bench, among other items.

In addition to academic and technical knowledge, De La Salle imparts life skills that enable students to reshape their future. Like all of CSS’s youth services agencies, the school has developed a trauma-informed approach to its clients, seeking to address the core reasons why youth engage in at-risk behavior. Staff focus on fostering communication skills, emotional intelligence, non-violence and a sense of social responsibility among students.

“A lot of these young men come from broken homes, broken environments. Their communities are broken, their families are broken,” said Julian Collick, a juvenile probation officer for Philadelphia’s family court division. “It starts there, but I feel like De La Salle has offered them a safe haven and a second home.”

Collick, who counted two students among the June 2018 graduating class, credited the school’s trauma-informed model as a more “humanizing” strategy for assisting youth.

“This relies on counseling, on seeing these guys eye-to-eye, and not simply putting them into a military-style boot camp,” he said. “It helps them understand who they are, and it’s more about treating them like a brother.”

Eli Shabyers observed that the curriculum instilled expertise that will serve him in any career.

“They taught me how to maintain a positive mindset, and how to choose a good path,” said Shabyers, who graduated with a certification in auto body maintenance. “I try to talk to a counselor now, or at least open up more about things that are going on.”

Many of the graduates also expressed a desire to launch their own businesses.

“I see myself owning my own shop,” said salutatorian Ibrahim Elade, who plans to complete further study in mechanical engineering at one of several area colleges he is considering. “I’ve loved working on cars ever since I was a kid.”

Elade noted that the De La Salle environment cultivated its students’ ability to identify and pursue goals.

“There were less distractions here,” he said, encouraging classmates in his graduation address to continue to “stay in your own lane and focus.”

While eager to continue their personal and professional development, graduates are also looking to give back to the community.

“I see myself teaching at-risk youth carpentry, so they can have something to do other than being beaten down,” said Collins. “I absolutely see mentoring in my future.”

Eli Byers, recipient of the school’s 2018 community service award, was commended for his work with the De La Salle peer counseling program. Through this outreach, students share their stories in area schools and with law enforcement to promote awareness and inspiration.

“Eli found the courage and heart to open up,” said counselor Fred Trainer in his commendation. “He invites others to join in a collective search for understanding about the hard and unfair stuff we experience.”

Before beginning the next chapter in their lives, the graduates are hoping to work in a little summer fun.

“I’m going to take this time to relax, and to get my mind and body ready for military workouts,” said Collins, who plans to enlist in the Army later this summer. “Although if anyone in my family needs my help with home improvement projects, I’ll be happy to work on those.”

Elade has already been tapped by his family for automotive repairs.

“Of course,” he laughed. “They got a head start.”