Soon after his grandmother died, Michael Cassel planned on becoming a chef in a nursing home.
“I wanted to make food for older people,” Cassel said of his aspirations as a 10-year-old living in Pennsauken.
That vision quickly gave way to another.
“Then, I wanted to become a scientist so I could make medicine for them,” Cassel said.
Those dreams have morphed into a new vision: Cassel has set his sights on developing a physical-therapy app to help seniors manage limitations that often accompany old age.
Now 20, Cassel believes he has found a pathway to his desire to honor his grandmother’s memory through service, thanks to Hopeworks, a Camden-based nonprofit that specializes in helping young people identify and pursue careers in the technology field.
“Hopeworks has saved the day for me again and again,” Cassel said. “I honestly don’t know here I would be if not for their help and support.”
Founded in 2000, Hopeworks provides training, professional and personal development, and job placement for around 250 young people each year. According to executive director Dan Rhoton, 85% of Hopeworks’ youth associates obtain jobs averaging around $34,000 in annual salary by the end of their training and internship — with a better than 90% retention rate over the next year.
Rhoton said Hopeworks officials regard Cassel’s situation as more than just a typical success story for the organization. Cassel is special not just because of his determination to use his sharpened skills in the technology field to help others but also because of the difficult circumstances he overcame as he progressed through the program:
This spring, despite dealing with homelessness (he spent several nights sleeping in his sister’s car because of an unsettled housing situation), he managed to continue working remotely with Hopeworks as an intern on the foundation’s web-design team.
“We would have a group meeting at the beginning and end of every day,” Rhoton said. “Michael never missed a huddle, even when he didn’t have a place to live. He never missed a deadline.”
Rhoton said Cassel, who now lives in the Forget Me Not shelter in North Philadelphia, continues to serve as a productive member of the web-design team. He plans to soon move into housing that Hopeworks provides on a temporary basis for its youth associates.
Cassel enrolled in the Hopeworks training program after graduating from Pennsauken High School in 2019 and spending a few months working in local warehouses and manufacturing plants.
“Michael’s situation is validation of the program, but it’s also a reflection of his own character and determination,” Rhoton said. “We try to help young people get where they want to be. We always tell them, ‘Your future does not have to look like your past.’”
Cassel’s past had its challenges. He said his mother and father have not been involved in his life and that he was raised by an aunt as well as his grandmother, Dorothy Mae Cassel.
He said his grandmother’s death in 2009 from cancer shook his world but also inspired him.
“She was my best friend,” Cassel said. “I used to tell her, ‘I can’t wait until I get older so I can take care of you.’”
Cassel has impressed Hopeworks officials with his positive attitude. As an intern scheduled to report to work at 9 a.m., he would arrive at 8:30 to help prepare coffee and tea for the rest of the crew.
“Every day,” Rhoton said.
Cassel has begun the process of applying for a Hopeworks scholarship that will enable him to attend college. He’d like to enroll at Temple, Rowan, or Camden County College, with an eye toward earning a degree in exercise science and an eventual career working with the elderly.
“I promised my grandmother I would be there to take care of her,” Cassel said. “I want to take care of others.”
Even through difficult times, he said, he rarely struggled to maintain a bright outlook. But he said the training and support from Hopeworks has provided him the tools to channel his can-do mindset into action.