Luis Torres, a carpentry senior, built a near-impossible staircase, a freestanding structure with no center support beam. The unlikely project holds up well, mirroring life for Luis, who grew up in poverty and overcame remarkable odds.
Williamson has given Luis the support he needed, through structure, life lessons and positive energy. “This school opened my eyes and helped me see that the way I was behaving wasn’t leading me to anywhere good,” Luis says.
Luis comes from a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. His mother had five children and his father, who was seldom in the picture, had four of his own. His mother struggled to take care of her family with an income so meager they lived nearly two years without electricity. When things got even tougher, she sent her then 9-year-old son to live with his uncle.
At 11, Luis went to live with his father. But, he was kicked out of the house two years later after a school suspension for a bad attitude.
He then returned to his mother, but not for long. The family spent three months living in a shelter and his mother sent him off again. Luis spent the next two years being passed around every three months between uncles, aunts, and cousins.
His senior year, he dropped out of school following another suspension. He decided to take a year off. It would prove to be a good decision.
Luis spent this time working with an uncle doing demolition work and some painting. Then, he enrolled in YouthBuild Philadelphia, a charter school that gives young adults a second chance to earn a high school diploma and to transform their lives.
Luis did well in his new school, where he studied carpentry and got his commercial driver’s license.
Seeing Luis’ potential, YouthBuild’s director of vocational training, Marty Malloy, pushed him to apply to Williamson. He drove Luis to his interview and campus tour when no family member could.
“I loved Williamson right away,” Luis says. “I like the school’s atmosphere and enjoy being around the other students who are always working hard. I love carpentry and it makes me feel ten times better than anything else. I was a drop out and now I’m going to one of the best trade schools in the country and I’m learning the carpentry trade. I beat the odds.”
Luis says that Williamson is a place where people care about students. “They help you to do your best. Several times I felt like quitting and they talked me into staying.”
The school’s structure helped him mature and view life positively. “This school opened my eyes and helped me see that the way I was behaving wasn’t leading me to anywhere good. I have learned many life lessons here and trying to live the school’s core values has helped me. I used to talk back to my teachers. Here, they treat you like an adult and expect you to act like an adult.”
Another valuable lesson Luis learned at Williamson is that “if you want to do it, you can, but you have to work at it.”
Class of 2000 Williamson graduate and Carpentry Director Mike Neville told Luis that if he wanted to build his impossible staircase, build it.
“He had faith in my carpentry ability and said he would help me if I got stuck. So, I did it even though it was hard.”
Adding to the difficulty of building the staircase is the fact that each piece is custom made with no two pieces alike, and there is no blueprint to follow.
Luis says several times he felt like giving up, but it became a quest. “I didn’t know what the next step was going to be and I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge, but I kept going.
“I had an image in my head and no set of rules to follow in building it. I had help from my fellow students and my instructor, but did most of the work myself. I made this happen and it has helped me to believe in myself. Having a good support system has helped,” says Luis, who plans to work in construction management and one day own his own company.
When Luis looks at his creation, now a permanent fixture in the Shop, he says it gives him a good feeling. “It’s standing and it’s usable. I enjoy looking at the faces of people as they look at the staircase. It is a very satisfying feeling.”
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