For several months, Luis Torres has been building a spiral staircase with no center support beam. The project is difficult and when he looks at it he gets a strong feeling of pride.
Maybe this is because he sees the similarities between his staircase project and his own life — both are going very well even though they were not expected to.
Torres, a carpentry senior, got the idea of building the staircase his freshman year. At that time, many told him it was impossible to build because it defied the laws of engineering — a free-standing spiral staircase with no center beam for support.
“My staircase should not be working, but it does,” Torres says with a smile, seeing the irony between his “impossible staircase” and his own life.
Torres grew up in poverty in a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia. His mother had five children and his father, who was not in the picture very much, had four of his own.
His mother struggled to take care of her family with an income so low they lived nearly two years with no electricity. When things got even tougher, she sent her son to live with his uncle when he was only nine.
At the age of 11, he went to live with his father. But, his father kicked him out of the house two years later after he got suspended from school for having a bad attitude.
He then returned to his mother, but not for long. After they spent three months living in a shelter, his mother sent him off again. He spent the next two years being passed around every three months between different uncles, aunts, and cousins.
During this time, his attitude was not very good and school was not a high priority. When he was a senior, he was suspended again for his bad attitude.
“At that point, I considered myself a dropout and I decided to take one year off from school,” he said.
He 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.
Torres did well in his new school where he studied carpentry and got his commercial driver’s license.
Seeing the potential of this young man, YouthBuild’s director of vocational training, Marty Malloy, pushed Torres to apply to Williamson. He even drove him in for his interview and campus tour when no one from his family was available.
Torres says, “I loved Williamson right away. 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.”
Torres has had help getting to where he is today, and gives much credit to the education he is receiving at Williamson.
“The people who work here really care about you; they help you to do your best. Several times I felt like quitting and they talked me into staying.
“Williamson’s structure has helped me mature and has given me a positive energy. 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. I no longer talk back to my teachers.”
Another valuable lesson Torres learned at Williamson is that “if you want to do it, you can, but you have to work at it.”
“A lot of people told me my staircase was impossible to build, but Mike Neville, my instructor, told me that if I wanted to build it, to 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 has been hard.”
Adding to the difficulty of building the staircase is the fact that each piece is custom made with no two pieces quite the same, and there is no blueprint to follow.
Torres 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.”
When Torres looks at his creation he says it gives him a good feeling. “If you looked at an engineering book, it would say building this staircase is not possible, but I did it. 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.”
The staircase still needs some fine tuning and Torres estimates it will be completed by carpentry students next year after he has graduated. But, that is OK with him. It is going to become a permanent fixture in Williamson’s Carpentry Shop. It is not yet determined what will be at the top of the stairs, but several possibilities being considered are a storage area, offices, or a place for students “to chill.”
Torres occasionally uses his carpentry skills to help others and is hoping to go with a Williamson group to the Dominican Republic in May to work on a hospital in the poverty-stricken town of Paraiso. He is now working at raising the $1,300 needed to pay his expenses for the trip. He says, “I would very much like to use my carpentry skills to help those people. That would be a good feeling.”
When Torres graduates on June 2, he is considering finding work in construction management or maybe working construction to get more experience. He hopes to eventually start his own construction company.
He says whatever he decides to do, it will be nice “to live a relaxed life with no fear of the power being shut off because I didn’t pay a bill.