SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT: ‘It’s a mobile shop class’: Cadets learn trades thanks to Xcel Strategies program

By Noell Barnidge
Benedictine Military School Cadets this academic year are participating for the first time in the Xcel Strategies program, a mentoring network that was founded by Jay Thompson in Savannah in 2012 to care for young people aged 15-25. Xcel exists to fuel young people with purpose and passion to reach the fullness of their potential through a network of trained mentors who prepare students for trade jobs that are in high demand like plumbers, electricians, carpenters, welders, and mechanics.

One day each week, Xcel’s 24-foot enclosed car hauler pulls in front of Benedictine Military School. The trailer serves as multi-functional mobile unit, providing workstations for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing training. During a recent Xcel visit to BC, students were mentored in basic plumbing skills that included cutting PVC pipe and toilet installation. The toilets were provided by Thompson & Thompson Service Group. The PVC pipe was supplied by Sandpiper Supply, Inc., which is owned by Chat Howard, BC Class of 1992. Both businesses are among numerous businesses that have donated money to Xcel to purchase materials and tools.

“It’s a mobile shop class,” Thompson said. “We’re out here today with the students at BC, teaching them about plumbing, specifically, toilet installation and how the toilet works, the use of the toilet, toilet maintenance. It all is a part of the plumbing trade. We’re teaching that the plumbing trade is of great value to our community. When there’s a toilet that’s not working, everybody needs a plumber. We’re teaching they guys the value of a skills trade, the value of plumbing, and today we did our toilet installation and competition. And now the young men are learning how to use the ratchet PVC cutters to cut the PVC pipe to be able to do installs in homes.

“We always teach the young men how to use a tool in their toolbelt,” Thompson continued. “This is the tool today, the PVC cutter. Obviously, they’re just learning the basics of toilet work and the workings of the toilet. We always like to teach students the tools of the trade and teach them a little bit about the basic understanding of the trade, and the wage of that trade. (Next week) we will focus more on the electrical side of it and then we’ll move into welding in December. We’re here every week. We’ve got nine young men in the program, and we are just excited to work with these guys to prepare them for life and maybe a career in the trades.”

Benedictine Military School senior John Best said he is benefitting from the weekly lessons he learns from Thompson and Cornelius Lloyd, Xcel’s Director for Chatham County.

“It’s good to step away from being in the classroom,” Best said. “It’s a more hands-on approach. You get to learn some potentially useful skills that you can apply later. You can save a lot of money. A lot of it, you could be paying somebody just to come look at (the problem). If you learn how to look at something and identify (the problem) yourself, if you can (repair it), you’ll save money. We’ve done some woodworking. We just moved onto plumbing recently. We’re about to go into an automotive section and then some HVAC, and some electrical stuff as well.”

Thompson, who graduated from Calvary Baptist (now Calvary Day School) in 1994, is a husband to Laura and father of three children. His sons, Paul (a senior) and John (a sophomore), attend Benedictine Military School. In addition to being the founder and CEO of Xcel in Savannah, Thompson also serves as the Family Pastor of Community Bible Church at 1112 E. 69th St., where he oversees children and students. Thompson is committed to helping families pursue a healthy framework for life. He started Xcel when he realized that a long-term approach with a mentoring network could make a difference in restoring families. The Xcel network thrives on relationships that empower students with education and job opportunities. As students advance through the Xcel program, they can qualify for trade school programs, college scholarships, or job opportunities.

“I was fortunate as a young man to have my current father adopt me and become my mentor,” Thompson said. “He provided guidance and opportunities for me that I would not have had otherwise. I’m originally from Savannah. I’ve been back the last 15 years with ministry, as a pastor of ministry, working mostly with college students. I’ve been with Xcel just over 10 years. It was just kind of a grassroots program and we’ve connected with schools all over the community. We’re in Chatham County, Bryan County, Effingham County, and now Bulloch County. We feel like the young men we work with; they gravitate to being able to work with their hands. They enjoy that.”

Mike Carbo, a 1976 graduate of Benedictine Military School, joined BC’s Guidance and College Counseling Office in November 2022 to help Cadets with career services. He met with Thompson and said he knew immediately that BC needed to become involved with Xcel.

“As I was getting started, somehow Jay’s name came up,” Carbo said. “He’s got two boys here (at BC). And they were talking about this program, and I was like, ‘Man, this sounds like exactly what we need. We need to at least talk about it.’ Somehow, some way, we got together and met in the main office out front of (BC Headmaster) Fr. Frank’s office. I sat down and it was probably an hour-long conversation. The more I listened, the more intrigued I was. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Why aren’t you here (at BC)?’

“What this program does is it allows for young men and women to get a feel for what a trade is all about, and actually put their hands on it,” Carbo continued. “With what we have going on in Career Services, we’re bringing the trades in, not trying to persuade anyone to not go to college, just other ideas. The more Jay talked, I said, ‘Jay, you’ve got to come here. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get you here.’ I went to (BC Director of Guidance and College Counseling) Mrs. (Sheila) Crossley, and we went to (BC Director of Admissions) Brennan Lemieux ’01, and we had our first meeting, and everybody was on board, everybody thought it was a wonderful idea. And then we went to (BC Principal) Dr. (Jacob) Horne and got it approved. That’s it in a nutshell, to put it simply. We had a conversation. The lightbulb went off. And it’s history. I hope next year that we don’t have nine boys. I hope we have 18 boys. Now, (Jay) does have a cap of anywhere from nine to 12 boys. I foresee this growing. And the boys that have experienced Xcel and have been in this training class really have adapted to it and they all seem to really like it.”

Upon completion of the Xcel program, each Cadet will earn a certificate, which will help them should they choose to pursue a trade.

“This program, for these boys, I can’t say enough about it,” Carbo said. “It’s not just about electrical, plumbing, HVAC. It’s about life. (Jay) gives life lessons. He’s talking to these boys on a level that brings God into the equation. He talks to them about how people struggle and how to get out of the struggle, and how to work forward, and how to solve problems. It’s more than just a class. He’s very much a very devout Christian who is bringing God to these boys in a different manner. Again, when we had our very first conversation, I was like, ‘You need to be at Benedictine Military School. Period. Final. Over and out. I don’t know how we’re going to do it but we’re going to make it happen.’ And you know what? It happened.”