By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
Books can be powerful things.
Books can inform us, educate us, and motivate us. Books can make us curious enough to go around the world or take us there without leaving our home. They can take us into the past, give us dreams of the future, and even make us laugh.
A book can be great company in a quiet or private time, but it can also be something to be shared. With this in mind, members of the staff at Giddings State School have started a book club for the students there.
They held their first meeting of the club in September and meet an average of twice a month. Taking part in the Book Club is allowed on the condition that participating students are fully caught up in their schoolwork and in compliance with all behavioral guidelines.
“The Mentoring Book Club got its start with several young men, sitting in my art class, who got into a discussion about what they could do to help them to do better when they got out,” said Dr. Tracey Walker, assistant principal at Giddings. “They asked if they could start a book club.”
“Students have varying reasons for attending,” said one of the teachers who leads the reading and discussions in the club meetings. “No doubt, some came out of curiosity and left once that was satisfied. But those who have stuck around, or come more recently, seem to be more interested in what we’re doing and several want to improve themselves and their quality of life going forward.”
“And that is at the heart of the book club; it’s specifically a mentoring book club with the purpose of growing and becoming better people. We believe this is an important, life-long process for everyone and we aim to instill that in each of the attending members.”
Currently, the group is reading and discussing Mentor: The Kid and The CEO by Tom Pace. It’s a novel about a young man’s attempt to overcome his troubled adolescence, aided by the efforts and mentorship of a local businessman. The story promotes the importance of such principles as hard work, keeping your word, and making a difference in your community.
Walker had been introduced to the book earlier and was much impressed by it. Eventually, she gave it to a student to see what he thought. Weeks later, another student, B.R., told her he’d read it and loved it. When she later learned that the book was being passed around and read in the dorm, she determined to see if there was a way to build momentum to get the students to spend more time independently reading.
More and more the students were getting excited about not just reading books, but forming a club to meet and discuss what they’d read. This wasn’t something Walker had considered, but it was becoming increasingly clear to her that this was something they wanted to do. They’d even come up with a name for the club: The Mentoring Book Club.
They continued to ask her about the book club having meetings and had been active in choosing what books to read from an approved list of titles. On their own, they gathered names to see who was interested in participating, but Walker was still unsure about how to gather and organize these meetings. She couldn’t do it alone.
That was when a new English teacher at the school heard about the club and immediately asked Walker what she could do to help.
“That was the question we had been needing to hear,” Walker said. “For the first time, I began to see that maybe a meeting would actually be possible. I spoke with Barbara Graves, a staff member in the Recreation department, and she got excited. She offered the use of the recreation building, Mustang Alley.”
Walker is quick to credit students B.R., A.G., and G.U., among others, as being real leaders in the club and setting an example for taking not only the reading material seriously, but the lessons in the books they read as well.
“They will come down and dream about what we can do, and say things like, ‘We should make bookmarks and write our Dream List (a concept from the book) on them,” Walker says.
“It is wonderful to watch them blossom as their thoughts and ideas are validated. It is as if they spoke this vision into existence. We make certain to continue to give them a voice and allow them to dream and try to do the things they suggest. They have great ideas and they keep me going,” she said.
Books can be powerful things. You don’t need to tell that to The Mentoring Book Club.
By Janet Sheelar, Volunteer Services Coordinator, Giddings State School
Our Giddings campus hosted a huge Family Day event on Nov. 12, a Thanksgiving barbecue for the youth.
Of the youth attending, 43 received family members or volunteer mentors who joined them, for a total of 97 guests.
The Knights of Columbus and Catholic Diocese raised the funds to purchase and prepare an amazing meal of barbecue brisket, pulled pork, sausage, pinto beans, mac and cheese, coleslaw and cobbler and cookies, which they served to all staff, youth and guests.
About 15 volunteers came to help serve at the event.
Staff offered family photos for those attending, which will be printed with copies for the youths and their family members.
Family members and youths were able to write on paper leaves a message about what they were thankful for, and these were added to our Thankful Tree.
This was a great event with nearly half of our youths enjoying visits.
We at Giddings and TJJD offer a big THANK YOU to the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Diocese for their generous donations that made this event possible.
We are grateful to these groups, all our volunteers, and of course, our invaluable staff, for helping out and making these events possible. Some staff came in on their days off to supervise.
By Tracey Walker, Assistant Principal, Lone Star High School Southeast, Giddings State School
The Giddings State School has been having a heck of a football year, with some stops and starts.As you may be aware, students must be doing well on campus (getting good grades and no behavior issues) to be allowed to go off campus -- and at times, it can be difficult to constitute a team.
So, when we do go, it is pretty special for the students, staff, and families who can attend, and we are so very proud of our guys! We have truly been enjoying this year.
At our very first regular season game this year against Bracken Christian School in Bulverde, we were reminded that there are some good and kind-hearted people in the world.
Well before the COVID crisis struck, unbeknownst to us, one of the players on the Bracken team, had devised a plan. He noticed that we did not have many people able to show up in the stands to cheer our guys that year, in 2019, and he wanted to do something about that for the next year.But with COVID still rampant, our team did not play for another two years.
That delay, however, did not stop this player from reaching out. Even though he had graduated by this year’s game, he told his dad, Pastor Paul of the Bulverde Baptist Church, that he wanted to make certain there were people to cheer on the Giddings State School youth when they played Bracken Christian. Dad and son went into action and called for volunteers to show up for the GSS Mustangs!
On the evening of August 26, much to our surprise, Bulverde Baptist went into action. They arrived at least 100 strong, an army of cheering fans with warm, smiling faces, kind and encouraging words, and wearing our school colors! If they wanted to show the love of God to our students, they succeeded. Our guys did not score one point that night, but they walked away with their heads held high, feeling loved and supported by these volunteers who led cheers, handed out pompoms, and wrote really sweet notes to our players.
It truly felt amazing to all of us. Our campus Superintendent Bill Parks and Operations Manager Robin Motley also were on site to witness this outpouring of support as well.
Student J.A. said, “I appreciate all of you coming. It made me feel… I don’t even know how it made me feel, but thank you for coming to see us play, it really meant something to me.”
“I felt appreciated,” said player M.M., “and it made me want to work harder. It made me want to care about the loss, because of them. It made me take pride in that loss.”
Said player E.D., “There are no words to explain how good it made me feel to have supporters on my side, after so many years of feeling the odds are against me.”
“I enjoyed how they cheered for us. It helped me keep going,” said player H.V.
“It made me feel good,” said player A.G. “It made me want to keep playing and not give up.”
There was in the stands that night a mother with two young girls, who were cheering our guys on too. She said that their dad had served time at the Texas Youth Commission, TJJD’s predecessor agency. Her youngest daughter, Skylee, had wanted to come for that reason. “That could have been my dad out there,” the girl said.
It was sweet watching these community members cheer for our students. It meant a lot and we want to offer special thanks to Bulverde Baptist and Bracken Christian School members for making this event so memorable for our students.
(Tracey Walker is Assistant Principal of Lone Star High School Southeast, the on-campus school for youth at Giddings State School. She holds a doctorate degree in Education.)
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
A lot can happen in 50 years. Changes both globally and locally. Shifts in cultural styles and how we live, and unimaginable leaps in technology. In the face of this, it can seem like fifty years ago we might as well have been living on a different planet
But while so much of the landscape around us changes, there are basic and essential things that stay the same. The need for safer communities and the roles that establishments like our schools play in our society.
This October, we recognize the 50-year anniversary of the opening of the Giddings State School, as well as the young people who’ve managed to become productive members of their communities and the men and women who’ve worked so hard to care for these youths.
The campus will be celebrating next Tuesday, Oct. 18, with a commemorative luncheon for community leaders, retirees, and employees of Giddings State School and other honored guests. (Details at the end of this story.)
The Community Embraces Giddings State School
The school opened in October 1972, but things really got started during the 1969 Texas State Legislature. That was when Speaker of the House Gus Mutscher and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Bill Heatly agreed to appropriate $4.5 million to build a school for the Texas Youth Council, later renamed the Texas Youth Commission and then Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
One of the conditions of this arrangement was that they find land for this school that would be donated, so a group of gentlemen headed by Monroe Hannes, the president of the First National Bank of Giddings, wrote a letter to the people of the community asking for donations.
The community apparently liked the idea of housing a new state school because it took them just 24 hours to raise $100,000.
They found the land they wanted and approached the owner, Roy Durrenberger. Durrenberger didn’t want the money but agreed to trade the 200 acres they sought in exchange for another 200 acres nearby.
The first superintendent, Jimmy Freeman, and the business manager, Joe Franks, started on June 1, 1972. “Mr. Freeman hired, by far, the majority of the staff,” Franks said. “From cooks to teachers to case workers.”
The first 12 youths transferred from the Gatesville State School. They arrived by bus and stepped onto the Giddings campus on Oct. 26, 1972.
Giddings first went co-educational in 1974. The program was “unsuccessful”, according to Franks. This was attempted again in 1980. “Well, that’s not a good deal,” Franks said, “because they (boys and girls) can get into trouble real quick. It was a nightmare, so the girls were moved out again.”
Upon the closure of the Mountain View State School facility in 1975, Giddings started getting “older, more sophisticated kids,” Franks said. This led to the school becoming more and more TYC’s main facility for youth committed for violent offenses.
In 1979, the community had become concerned by the rising number of escapes. Several town meetings were held between the school and the community which resolved to have 7,000 feet of 14-foot-high fence with an electronic security system installed around the state school’s perimeter.
The school had been built to hold 480 youths, but well before it ever approached that number, the Texas Legislature changed the Texas Family Code for required square feet per youth in the dorms and those new guidelines dropped the allowable capacity to 256.
The campus itself was spacious, containing offices, a chapel, school, cafeteria, several dorm buildings, vocational workshops, a gym, basketball court, and football field, all situated alongside grassy fields interspersed with tall East Texas pine and oak trees.
Velma Lewis, a Giddings native who’s been employed at the school for over 30 years, spoke of the connections that grew between the school and the community.
“I think the community has enjoyed the school being here,” she said, “because the school was giving jobs to a lot of people that lived here and the surrounding areas. This would help the people around here and they wouldn’t have to travel so far to go to work.”
A Tradition of Campus Teamwork, Then and Now
“When I first started here, the staff was really close. You knew staff on each dorm and when we got off work, we’d go out together,” recalls Teresa Couch, who’s worked for 25 years at Giddings State School. For most of those years, she was a case manager, but now she works as the campus scheduler.
Case managers, she recalls, used to work consistently at a particular dorm. They and the JCOs would stay with one dorm for a long time, months to years. This was when Texas Youth Commission campuses across the state had significantly larger populations, serving youth committed for misdemeanors through felonies. Today, TJJD youth are restricted to felony-level offenses.
Giddings State School, in that period, was more strictly organized around dorm “families,” Couch said. She recalled how each dorm would host its own barbecue during holidays. Staff would erect an outside canopy and begin grilling to celebrate Juneteenth or July Fourth. They’d have dorm dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the volunteers would host similar festivities, giving the youth dual celebrations during the winter holidays.
“Some of the best memories I have are from back in the day. We’d have barbecues or dinners on the dorm, and all the staff would bring in entrees for dinners or potlucks on the dorm.”
Since the beginning, all Giddings youths received academic instruction appropriate to their needs. Every year, many students earn their diplomas or GEDs.
Working with the youths wasn’t always easy, but it is rewarding when the work pays off, said Lewis, an Investigator Hearing Specialist. “Years ago, we had more gang-related kids. But we worked with them, and they took pride in learning and trying to change.”
As a way of teaching discipline through teamwork, the program at Giddings State School has included extracurricular sports, fielding track, basketball, and football teams. Former longtime Coach Sandy Brown and others with TYC helped the teams join the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) league so they could play outside schools.
Giddings State School teams throughout the years have been to regional playoffs and even state-level competitions. The boys’ track and field team won a TAPPS state championship in 1996, 1997, and 2001 and the football teams made it to the playoffs in 2001 and 2018. In that latter playoff, Giddings lost a hard-fought battle (44-32) against their state school rivals, the Gainesville Tornadoes.
Beyond sportsmanship, the players learned to trust each other and their coaches and teachers, a powerful ingredient in their reform journey, according to Brown, who worked at Giddings State School for 40 years.
Current and former members of the Giddings staff also note the invaluable contributions made by volunteers and mentors over the years. TJJD mentors make a significant impact by also developing a trusting, supportive relationship in which the youth is encouraged to reach his/her potential, discover strengths, and develop self-confidence.
Just this past summer, a huge group of faith-based volunteers held the 35th Epiphany gathering at Giddings State School, demonstrating their strong, ongoing commitment to providing guidance to the youth. Their buoyant return, after a necessary hiatus during the COVID pandemic, raised spirits.
“It was a magical weekend,” said Volunteer Services Coordinator Janet Sheelar.
COVID had hit the campus hard, said Kathryn Hallmark, a psychologist at Giddings State School. “Our kids, staff, and all of our families and communities were suffering in so many ways during COVID crisis,” especially during the height of the pandemic when the more dangerous variants caused illnesses and played havoc with scheduling, she said.
But the campus is emerging from that period, she said. “The core of the Giddings campus is strong. Our community volunteers have returned to support us, and the treatment staff is modernizing and getting all sorts of valuable training.”
Giddings State School is home to a special therapy program for capital and violent offenders and also now serves as the primary center for mental health treatment at TJJD with a Crisis Stabilization Unit and a robust group of clinicians trained to help youth with a variety of needs.
“I have developed so much as a psychologist in my 20 years at TJJD,” Hallmark said. “I look forward to what blessings may come to the Giddings campus.”
The Giddings campus also has been training dozens of new Juvenile Correctional Officers (JCOs), following a staffing shortfall during COVID which TJJD leadership and the Texas Legislature are addressing with pay raises for direct care staff that went into effect in July.
“Our recruiting efforts are increasing and we’re getting about 20 people a month trained, starting in August. What that will equate to is we’ll get back to full regular programming on a regular basis,” said Superintendent Bill Parks.
And soon, more change. “We’re actually retraining the entire campus on structured felt safety and that will provide the youth a feeling of safety,” Parks said. “It’s like we’re going back to the basics, re-teaching and re-framing it, and I feel good about it. Once that’s done, we’ll have a great facility going forward.”
Fifty years. So many changes. So much that remains the same. The challenging and important work at Giddings State School goes on, thanks to so many devoted people.
(If you are planning on attending the luncheon at 11:30 am, Oct. 18, at the campus chapel, please send your RSVP to Janet Sheelar () by Oct. 14. Guests will enjoy a hot lunch and listen to a speaker with a special story.)
Photos top to bottom: Giddings campus; auto shop class in 1990's; a cultural event (date unknown); a Christmas dinner in the dorm (date unknown); Giddings football team playing Gainesville team, circa 2000; graduation ceremony, 2022.