By TJJD staff
Talk about making interesting connections. Earlier this month, Ayres House youth got to hear directly from adults serving time at the Kyle Correctional Center.
The meeting was a virtual one, in which the men in residence at KCC answered questions sent in earlier by Ayres youth. They recorded the answers on a videotape, which was then played for the youth at Ayres House.
The kids' questions primarily concerned the designated topic that KCC was working on, reading and literacy, and the mens’ lives at KCC. The men, mostly in their 30s and 40s, have all been incarcerated or served probation previously and are currently assigned to a substance abuse program at the Kyle unit.
The boys wanted to know: What keeps you level-headed in there? What are some of your favorite books and why? For those of us who don’t really read, how can we get more interested in it? What is the main lesson you learned while at KCC? What community re-entry tips have you learned that could help us?
Listening to the answers the KCC residents gave was quite exciting for the youth, said Patty Garza, TJJD’s South region community coordinator, who helped organize the unique virtual gathering March 10 at Ayres. The youth made comments afterward that they felt they shared similar backgrounds with the KCC residents, she said.
The youth and the men at KCC also share a similar status. Both are at a juncture, poised to head back to their communities with renewed personal goals and a plan for progress. Community service is a part of that journey at Ayres House and KCC and the men had prepared for weeks for the literacy project.
The work is part of a broader year-long community outreach effort that has four phases and began with the focus on literacy and the visit to Ayres, said KCC Warden Bernadette Rodriguez. KCC residents and staff will continue the literacy component with outreach to a local elementary school and a retirement home in the Kyle area.
At each visit, the staff of KCC is delivering donated books, including more than three dozen that went to Ayres.
Youth at the halfway house had put in a list of requested titles -- “Mamba Mentality” by Kobe Bryant; “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas; “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, the Harry Potter series, Manga books and many more – and were delighted when many of these books appeared last week.
“Some of those books had different volumes we couldn’t find, but the majority we did provide for them, and I know they were excited about that,” said Warden Rodriguez, who explained that KCC staff collected and made the donations.
KCC, based in Kyle just south of Austin, is a privately run facility that contracts with Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The corporation that operates KCC, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) is celebrating 40 years in business this year with the program of community service, Rodriguez said. Both the staff and residents of KCC are working hard to craft the local shape of the outreach, which calls for the remaining three quarters of 2021 to focus on hunger, fighting mental illness and finally, homelessness, Rodriguez said.
For the hunger component, the KCC residents are growing lettuce, potatoes, onions and other vegetables, the first crop of which they’ll donate to the local food bank later this spring.
The residents, who take vocational and anger management classes in addition to the substance abuse program, greatly enjoyed the outreach to Ayres, which was “very personal for them,” Rodriguez said.
“Many of them were in their shoes at one point, so they could relate. They told their own stories of coming up struggling with literacy,” she said.
In addition to showing the video addressing the youths’ questions, the men shared another video they’d made for the blind residents of the nursing home. In this second video, they read poems and short stories out loud, modeling both literacy and caring.
The Ayres youth were keenly interested in the virtual get-together, Garza said. “The guys sat still and were 100 percent engaged with the entire KCC resident video. They absolutely loved it and smiled, nodded, laughed,” she said.
The key message from the men: Take literacy seriously. It will make your life easier and you’ll be more confident.
Several of the KCC residents told how reading had opened up opportunities for them. One reported that learning to read well led to his earning three associates degrees ensuring he’s employable and another urged the boys to give reading books for pleasure a try.
“For me, I take a book and read the first chapter. If it catches my eye, I’ll continue. That’s how you could do it or sometimes, don’t let the picture catch your eye because a picture can be deceiving,” he said, “. . . just read the first chapter to see what’s going on.”
The men also shared their life skills tips: Maintain a small circle of friends that you know have your back and want the best from you. Connect with a sponsor or mentor and stick with the program. Set small goals and build on them, one step at a time.
“I know it’s corny, but education really is everything,” one man said. “They can’t take away what you learn and know.”
Photos: Top left - Ayres Halfway House youth watch a video sent by KCC residents as Warden Rodriguez looks on; center right -- Ayres staff hold donated books; bottom -- Warden Rodriguez speaks to the Ayres youth.
Patty Garza, Volunteer Services Coordinator for TJJD, San Antonio, and Barbara Kessler, Communications, contributed to this story.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Oh, 2020. You were a demanding year. We all had to make so many adjustments (and we still are!).
At TJJD, students hunkered down and adapted to altered routines in which safety required they forego big gatherings, school sports competitions, off-campus work and family events.
And yet they still found bursts of joy and self-discovery amid our new reality.
We heard about some of these happier moments from Giddings State School art teacher Tracey Walker, who witnessed the boys light up when she wheeled in her art cart for fine arts class.
Before the COVID pandemic, the boys came to her classroom in the vo-tech building. But during 2020, she and other teachers went to the youth, setting up classes in dorm dayrooms so the boys could stay within their small residential groups.
Her arts class, a welcome break from academics for many youth, became even more of an occasion. The arrival of the art cart, with its sketch pencils and papers, foam and canvas boards, markers, pastels and reels of colorful lacing string, represented a chance to relax and engage creative impulses.
“To have something to do with their hands and their minds, it tends to be a lifesaver,” Walker said. “So they love it.”
Walker typically packed supplies for craft projects that anyone could learn, such as Styrofoam boards for creating abstract prints from etched foam. The boys thought that process - in which their carved designs became a reverse image pressed onto paper - was “just magical,” Walker said.
Another group favorite was making bracelets with beads or by weaving vinyl laces. The boys loved choosing colors and tinkering with these crafts as they created gifts for family members for Mother’s Day last year. They also have made many friendship bracelets for themselves and classmates.
“I get tickled in my heart because they’re so proud of what they can create. It's great, because they may not be the ones who can draw the best,” Walker said.
These craft projects often acted like a group tonic, producing “major calming effects” on the class and providing extended periods of quiet concentration. The boys began to crave these meditative periods and would remind Walker to bring the lacing strings when she returned.
“They would just sit there and do the crafts. I love to watch them quietly enjoy an activity,” said Walker, who taught public school in Houston after graduating from the University of Houston and then spent two decades in youth ministry work.
Her classes also included more serious artists, and they, too, eagerly awaited the art cart to grab up fresh canvas boards. They worked on perfecting sketched eyes, mouths, trees and mountains, creating dreamy landscapes and detailed portraits. A few produced numerous paintings during the pandemic.
Some of these students took leadership roles, helping to teach others and urging them to try sketching or drawing with pastels, she said.
Those with advanced skills receive admiration from the class. But Walker makes sure the novices feel rewarded too and praises them lavishly.
“If it’s not the very best -- that’s ok! I tell them, ‘You’re learning how to use the colors and blend colors, you did a great job!’
“There are no failures here.”
Even kids who seem initially uninterested or present behavior issues, usually turn around and surprise her.
“They’ll get to working with the art, and it produces something different in them, maybe because, in those moments, they’re getting a chance to feel successful,” she said.
“And I’m going to compliment them and tell them, ‘You are a superstar when you try’,” she said.
It is little wonder Walker has built rapport with her students that enables mutual respect. Students are mostly kind and attentive in her classes, which have embraced a broad definition of art and personal expression, with music, dancing, contests, prizes, rap, poetry and Pictionary.
Walker created several contests that were open to all students at Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southeast, said Principal Dennis Smith. That helped keep many students engaged.
Like other teachers, Walker also filled in as an “assigned” teacher in the dorms, assisting a variety of students with class work.
“While the youth were on their dorms and socially distanced in the classrooms, we did our best to help them keep up with their normal assignments,” Smith said. “The students who were fortunate enough to have Ms. Walker for an assigned teacher were able to take advantage of her daily interest and activities using her art expertise.”
Ideas she developed as a youth ministry trainer fit nicely, Walker said, with TJJD’s approach to reform. The Texas Model stresses showing kids respect and caring and providing safe spaces in which to express themselves.
At the start of the pandemic, she introduced the youth to a concept she weaves into the curriculum called “my story,” which prompts them to seriously envision a better life ahead.
“We talk about the future, and I tell them, ‘You’re writing your story, and what do you want to see on that page in 20 years, in 10 years? You want to see ‘I’m acting like a fool at 15 and I’m still acting like a fool at 35?’” She chuckles and then turns serious.
This gentle challenge, she says, is one she can make because she’s built personal credit with the kids. They know she cares and is not judging them.
“I come from a culture of love,” she said, referring to her background in youth ministries. “The kids here who I work with, they know when they’re loved and when you’re being real or not.”
“When they feel loved, and they know you love them,” then they show you their best and they drop that protective “hard” image they’ve been projecting, she said.
“Most of them were really stripped of a childhood,” she added. “It could have been the environment they were in.”
But given a chance to be themselves and unafraid, they realize “it’s OK to just have fun and laugh.”
By Y. Denise Caldwell, Community & Family Relations Coordinator, TJJD North District
Seven lucky TJJD youth got to play a popular video game, Among Us, with two NFL players Adrian A.C. Colbert, a free safety with the New York Giants, and Raheem Mostert, a running back with the San Francisco 49ers.
The live streamed event, on Jan. 19, marked the launch of a fundraiser by the non-profit foundation, Esposure4All, which plans to donate an Esports Learning Center to be installed at TJJD’s McFadden Ranch Halfway House in Roanoke.
The foundation’s goals are to help educate and empower underserved youth by providing experiential learning and fostering opportunities in the video gaming industry. The gaming room at McFadden would equip the halfway house with computers and software for game play and education in video arts.
“This initiative with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is truly just the beginning. Esposure4All is here to open doors and empower youth to see opportunities in the emerging world of Esports,” said Brittney Seals, Executive Director of Esposure4All. “We’re excited to build on this launch effort by providing ongoing educational resources to TJJD and additional partners in the future.”
Esposure4All is the charitable offshoot of Esposure, an esports and video technology company. Both are based in Desoto, a suburb south of Dallas. Last week’s event was set up at Esposure’s gaming center, where a few employees helped facilitate the games between McFadden youth gathered at the center and the football celebrities, who played remotely. Everyone at the center wore masks and socially distanced. The boys received headsets and t-shirts donated by Hyper X for the event.
The educational opportunity presented by the new partnership aligns well with the mission of TJJD to help youth succeed in life, said Marketa Johnson, Superintendent at McFadden Ranch.
“One of our main goals is to help our youth develop a better vision for their future,” she said. “We are so grateful to Esposure4All for providing this unique, engaging experience that allows our youth to explore opportunities in the Esports industry.”
Not to mention the fun they had when the seven youth and staff visited Esposure’s gaming arena in Desoto, Texas, where, before the gaming experience, the youth toured the Center and heard motivational and inspirational words from Esposure Co-Founder and CEO, Danny Martin as well as the two NFL players.
Masked, wearing sunglasses and hoodies, the youth initially intimidated their football opponent players, by winning the first round.
However, the tables turned and with much trash talking, laughing and strategizing, the players came back and won the rest of the games. It was obvious everyone had a good time.
The youth, J.B., E. H., J. F., E.G., G.R., N.G., and D.B. are avid gamers who were excited about playing and impressed with the Esposure facility.
It was great to play against them (the NFL players) because we (the youth) came together and worked as a team,” said J.B..
J.F. said he was “grateful for the once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m really thankful because this means something to me and I’m going to take it to heart.”
“It was amazing,” said N.G. said, “We connected with each other, an unbelievable experience. It wasn’t just about the game. It was more about the opportunity to meet key people in the industry, being (in) a state-of-the-art facility with state-of-the-art equipment, from chairs to headsets and large screens. Plus, we met key people and actually played against NFL players and each other.”
NFL player Colbert shared his story and answered questions from the youth, encouraging them to “be 100% and not half-a**. I’m keeping it real!” he said.
“Make sure it (what you decide to do) makes you happy. Treat people with respect and love. Serve others, too. I’m passionate about playing video games, playing football and helping others.”
Colbert said he grew up “super hard in Wichita Falls, Texas and could have been on the path to be in jail or dead. I had to remove myself from negative situations, you know, when you have to make the right decision and stop being a follower. Be a positive example.”
He said he has 14 siblings, and all of them - younger and older ones look up to him.
When asked the best thing about being in the NFL, he said: “It’s cool to live out my dreams of playing professional football, being financially stable and able to not only help my family but give back to my community, too.”
Raheem Mostert also counseled the boys to “always believe in yourself, and don’t doubt your abilities.”
He told how he had been cut from teams several times before he made the 49ers and achieved success. “Keep fighting that long fight,” he said. “It will be worth in in the end.”
Ultimately, the Esposure4All event, which also raised $71.00, was about creating the Esports Learning Center at McFadden Ranch. It will be equipped with six player PCs, gaming chairs, keyboards, mice and monitors and the youth will learn to play and learn about opportunities in Esports.
To learn more about Esposure4All and contribute to its mission, visit the Esposure website.
Photos: Upper left, McFadden Ranch youth seated at gaming consoles; Middle right, Brittney Seals, Executive Director of Esposure4All, and Marketa Johnson, McFadden Ranch Superintendent, discuss the new partnership for the livestream; Lower left, A rendering of the proposed gaming room for McFadden Ranch. These photos courtesy of Esposure4All. Bottom, a screenshot of the game play with Colbert and Mostert.
By Pedro Lozano, Youth Development Coach, Tamayo House
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. This age-old proverb would prove true, as frustration quickly began to overtake excitement during a Tamayo House fishing trip to Port Mansfield.
Youth Development Coach Arturo Guevara and myself supervised this special outing. That morning, almost cat-like, the youth hopped out of bed when they were told to get ready to go fishing.
Anticipation and excitement filled the air. We loaded up the vans, off we went. During the travel, the kids could not stop talking about this opportunity. Some mentioned that they used to fish a lot but that it had been a while since they had gone, and others said they had never been fishing.
Personally, I think it was great for either, the first-timers and those who were getting re-acquainted with fishing.
We arrived at an isolated spot that had been reserved for us – so that we could maintain the social distancing required at this time. We gave the kids precautionary guidelines/safety measures; set and prepped the equipment and threw in our lines.
Twenty minutes into this activity, few kids began to grumble, saying, “I’m not coming next time,” or “Don’t bring me -- this is boring.”
Others remarked, “We are not going to catch anything,” or “Let’s go back to Tamayo.”
Hearing this, I looked around and saw a few youth still fishing, but one youth was all in. He was playing the sport the way it was intended to be played: patiently.
I went up to this young man and asked how he was doing.
He replied, “The fish aren’t here, they are over there.” He pointed to a nearby isolated dock that also had been reserved for us.
“Can we go over there?” he asked. So, we did.
This youth and two others, from among the discouraged group, went to fish at the other dock.
Instantly, they caught a fish!
This fish, was too small to keep, and we tossed it back in. But you could feel the excitement creeping back.
Lunchtime arrived, so the kids left the fishing rods casted and we set up to eat near the van.
The kids were asking, “We’re not going to catch anything just that one little fish, right?”
I responded, “You know, there’s a Bible story, where the disciples were fishing, but their nets were empty. They were growing impatient, just like you all, when a man (Jesus) who was walking on the shoreline said, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some”
They did and their net began to fill with so many fish, that they couldn’t haul it in.
“So rather than thinking negatively, let’s look at where we are at as being the right side, just like the story,” I said. “And if we catch nothing else, we at least were able to get out of the house for a little while. So let's continue to enjoy this outing.”
As we were eating, I took two pictures of the boys -- one as they began to eat, and the other picture capturing their reaction when they saw one of the fishing rods suddenly bending ferociously.
We all ran towards the rod, and sure enough, the boys had caught one. It took a little while to bring this fish in. They wrestled with it, let it get tired, wrestled some more, and eventually the boys won!
Ironically, the rod that caught the fish belonged to the kid that said that we were not going to catch anything, and to not bring him next time. And the one who reeled it in was the persistent kid who wanted us to go to this dock because he felt the fish were over here.
Ultimately, the group’s enjoyment reached an all-time high, and they wanted to know when we could come again. They had learned an important lesson, which is stated perfectly in Ecclesiastes 7:8. It says, “The end of something is better than its beginning. Patience is better than pride.”
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
TJJD has announced its first class of “Texas Model Champions,” team leaders who are being recognized for their excellent work with youth and dedication in becoming agents of change on their campuses. The Champions are:
These four, who between them have nearly 50 years of experience at TJJD, excelled during an extended, rigorous evaluation in which they showed they are effectively practicing the tenets of the Texas Model, which promotes a compassionate, trauma-informed approach in working with the youth.
The Texas Model is a major reform program begun under Executive Director Camille Cain that aims to help TJJD youth find lasting success in life by connecting with andempowering them to make positive changes.
Staff across TJJD have been training in the Model since July 2019 and the newly named Champions have undergone extensive training. As team leaders, they will now be teaching Texas Model strategies and concepts to the Youth Development Coaches at their campuses, said Troy McPeak, Associate Director of the Texas Model.
Together, the leaders and youth coaches are responsible for setting the right tone and skillfully deploying the model and maintaining campus safety.
“I’m very excited about this initiative. So much of the Texas Model is focused on the kids, but we cannot forget the staff. This empowers them,” McPeak said.
The Champions certificate recognizes the work they’ve done and that they’ve mastered the concepts and techniques that create meaningful and temperate interactions with the youth, McPeak said.
Galindo said that her training in the Texas Model methods is helping her better understand the youth in her care.
“I really feel that all of the changes are positive at our agency and this new way of working with youth is more natural than the correctional system we used to use,” she said.
The other champions agreed that the Texas Model is proving to be an effective therapeutic approach and affirming their career choice to work in juvenile justice.
“I’ve always loved working with youth,” said Spears. “In my opinion this is not a job to me, when you love your profession it’s not considered work in my eyes.”
The Champions program, conceived by Director of Secure Facilities Alan Michel, and developed in collaboration with Texas Model program staff, taps the Texas Model Mentors who are assigned to each campus.
The Mentors, as their name implies, help guide facility staff in these new Texas Model practices. Each campus is served by one Texas Model Mentor.
This fall, the Mentors launched the Champions program by selecting a candidate for potential Champions designation. After enlisting the nominee’s agreement to enter the program, they observed them in their daily interactions with youth for about a month. They coached them every day and also reviewed body camera footage from periods when they weren’t present to get a full picture of how the candidate was handling a variety of situations.
The program is rigorous by design. “We want to make sure people are embodying this and really living the principles,” McPeak said.
Some of the specific techniques and behaviors the Texas Model Mentors watched for:
“We want people to be excited by the Texas Model,” McPeak said, because it both elevates the work and unlocks the potential of the youth.
Research shows the techniques encompassed by the Model work to help youth feel safer, gain insight into their behavior and better control their emotions, all of which paves the way for them to make progress academically, socially and personally.
TJJD staff who fully embrace these new methods are key to steering the campuses toward the more caring and proactive culture that defines the Texas Model.
The Champions program dovetails well with the Texas Model, accelerating the cultural shift by validating and empowering staff as they seek to empower the youth. McPeak expects it will ripple through the TJJD workforce, with new Champions nominees evaluated and named until all team leaders have earned the certification, perhaps by this spring.
After that, other staff will be eligible for the program, giving them the opportunity to show their competency and empowering them as agents of change.
“The ultimate goal is that a year from now we have dozens of people coined ‘Texas Model Champions’ at each of the campuses,” McPeak said. “But we’re starting with team leads because they’re going to be the driving force.”
Photos: Martin Astorga (upper right); Tiffany Earl (middle left); Brandon Spears (middle right); Patricia Gallindo (bottom right).