Jennifer Brown embraces her mentoring role as assistant superintendent at Gainesville State School
Evins Campus Volunteers Faithfully Serve Youth and Their Families with Meals, Events and Donations
By Fidel Garcia, Community Volunteer Coordinator, Evins Regional Juvenile Center
Last month, the Volunteer Council serving the Evins campus, in Edinburg, sponsored an Easter family event and helped a family that was struggling financially so that they could attend the event and visit their young loved one.
The Council generously provided the family a gas card for $207, enabling them to drive some 500 miles to Evins Regional Juvenile Center.
“The family was very appreciative when she (the mom) called,” said Crystella Garza, who heads up Family Services at Evins.
The mother told Garza that when she found out about the donation she was overwhelmed and “moved to tears and had to rush to the bathroom to hide my tears of gratitude."
“It was a real financial struggle and miracle that we were all able to go on Saturday,” she told Garza. “Eight hours one way, two cars, five people! We had thought that we wouldn't be able to go. Then Tuesday before last, you kindly called to confirm that I was coming.”
Helping the families and youth in these practical ways has been the core mission of the nonprofit community volunteer councils that serve TJJD’s secure facilities and halfway houses. These groups have been dedicated for decades to helping TJJD/TYC youth with a variety of assistance and programs they develop and deliver, with the approval of the facility leadership.
At Evins Regional Juvenile Center, in the Rio Grande Valley, helping with gas cards and motel bills for families has been a focus of their good works. Not that it’s all the council does, not by a long shot.
Leonel Rodriguez, who’s been volunteering at ERJC for 32 years (you read that right), has helped with a variety of programs in which community members reach out. He works within the South Texas Youth Council (formerly Evins Volunteer Council), one of the most active community groups supporting Evins youth.
“I have always been community oriented and anything I can do to strengthen youth and family has always been my passion," Rodriguez said. "Also, all the wonderful volunteer partners that I have been able to work with throughout the years have kept me going. How can I not?”
Rodriguez chuckles now as he recalls that back in 1991, when then-Volunteer Coordinator Jane Parker asked him to help out, she told him, “Don’t worry it will only be for one year.” Or 32.
Over the years the Council has found a multitude of ways to pitch in. Members raised funds to start Evins’ horticulture program, which has sent many youth into the world with valuable work experiences. They also supported meals for youth and families for the one-time softball Diamond Rattlesnake team.
The Council regularly sponsors graduation receptions for families, students and staff to celebrate the youth receiving their GEDs or high school diplomas and they go into high gear at the holidays, providing Thanksgiving dinners for youth and families featuring a full meal of turkey with the trimmings.
At Christmas, the Council donates enough cash (last year it was more than $2,500) to put some $20 or so on every youth's phone card, allowing the young men to make additional phone calls home beyond their usual allotment.
And they don't forget New Year's Day, when the Council presents each youth with a goody bag with cookies, candy, chips, and a note of encouragement.
Outside of holidays, volunteers serve as role models and mentors, encouraging the youth to think positively and complete their programs so they can go home as early as possible. They check up on them and let them know someone in the community cares about them..
One thing that has remained steady over the years is the eager pool of volunteers that has engaged juveniles at the facility. These volunteers come from all walks of life and sectors of the community. They’ve undergone background checks and trained to work with the youth population.
At Evins, the volunteer program has revived after a couple years of restrained activities caused by COVID. But even during that time, with quarantines and limits on visitors, the volunteers found ways to keep up the connections, financially sponsoring various activities from behind the scenes. Some wrote letters of encouragement.
Rodriguez, an owner agent with State Farm Insurance in McAllen, joined just eight months after the Council incorporated in 1990. He’s held numerous positions on the board and has been nominated several times at the local and state level for various awards for his community involvement.
Many times, volunteer groups will work cooperatively and in conjunction with the Council. One such group, the Catholic Dioceses of Brownsville, has provided religious programing for Catholic youth through Bible studies, Sacrament classes, baptism, and weekend retreats.
However, when it comes to providing support for the youth, they treat all youth the same regardless of their religious affiliation.
At the Thanksgiving holiday, the Catholic Diocese volunteers complemented the Council’s turkey plate with drinks, pies and most importantly the manpower to serve and hand deliver each plate to the youth.
Other groups that have been outstanding supporters include members of the Apostolado de La Cruz and Our Lady of Sorrows which are parishes of the Catholic Diocese. Many of the members in this group belong to other civic organizations and spread the word out quickly when a need is identified for the youth at Evins. Through their efforts, weekend retreats have been organized and manpower recruited when needed.
These groups will network with the Council to help families to visit their loved ones. Usually the Council will provide a gift card for the round trip gas and they will step in and provide a one night stay for the family at a local hotel.
“When you are traveling for hours to get to Evins to visit their son we want to make sure that for those that can’t afford it we provide a comfortable place and snacks for them to rest and enjoy after a ten hour drive,” said Ignacio Estorga, a chaplain volunteer and Council member.
Also, during each Family Day they provide funding for a full meal and game prizes for a variety of games, which caseworkers and staff organize for the youth and visiting family members.
And when they hear from staff organizing Family Days that someone needs help getting there, they go into action -- as they did last month. Helping bring families together is something they strongly support, Rodriguez said.
“The family unit has been the glue that holds the family together,” he said, “and hopefully [is] the deterrent to the youth from continuing down the wrong road.”
(Photos: A family prays at a Thanksgiving dinner; volunteers pose at the Evins' entrance; a family celebrates together during an Easter egg hunt.)
Spotlight On: Monica Harrison, Manager of Operations, Giddings State School
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
Everyone who excels in their work has their own style, their own approach to how they go about it. What Monica Harrison brings to the job is her love of working with the youth in TJJD care.
“I enjoy working with them and helping change the lives of these young men,” said Harrison, Manager of Operations at Giddings State School.
With over 26 years of service, Harrison has plenty of experience from which to draw, and that can come in handy with her ample daily responsibilities.
“I supervise three different departments,” she said. “I supervise the Recreational Department, the Cafeteria, and the Regulation Safety Unit.”
Along with others, she also oversees operational aspects of the facility that ensure the safety of the youth and staff.
The mother of two children, ages 18 and 21, she says she’s grown and learned many things on the job that have helped her as a parent. “When I first started here, I was pretty young,” she said. “I had no patience and I had less understanding, but working here taught me patience and understanding to work with these kids and to work with my own kids.”
“And I talk to the kids here the same way I talk to my kids at home,” she added.
Harrison points out that the techniques developed at TJJD enable her and her colleagues at Giddings to reach the students and help them increase their chances of success in life.
“I wish the public really knew what we do here,” she said. “There’s always going to be negative stories that they see, but it’s not like that every day. We don’t have bad days every day, we don’t have issues all the time. I think the public thinks that this is a bad place for bad kids. Well, these are somebody’s kids. These are somebody’s kids that we are trying to help rehabilitate and get back into society and be productive citizens.”
For her, it all comes back to loving the work. “I love my Recreational Department because we have to come up with different games for the kids to play,” she said. “Just to see the kids out there enjoying themselves and playing games -- even though in my position I don’t work directly with the kids anymore -- it gives me the chance to supervise my staff and enjoy time with the kids.”
Twenty-six years is plenty of time to compile memories. Harrison says the ones that mean the most are the successes of some of the youth she’s worked with.
“Because of the rapport I’ve had with the youth (some) have called me here over the years and said they appreciate what I’ve done for them.”
Having a breakthrough and making meaningful connections with the youth is what motivates her to keep working at TJJD, she said. “I want to let these young men know that I understand what they’ve been through, and that they can overcome it.”
“When I’m training new hires, I always tell them they have to be firm, they have to be fair, they have to be consistent with these kids, but you also have to be empathetic,” she said.
To do the job, she listens to music and gets into a relaxed frame of mind during her 30-minute commute to and from work. For a more thorough sense of relaxation, Harrison takes brief cruises as often as she can. “My ideal vacation, my ideal goal, is to travel the whole Caribbean,” she said. “I’m about halfway there.”
Dr. Henry Schmidt joins TJJD as Director of Structured Programming and Accountability
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Texas Juvenile Justice Department is pleased to welcome Henry Schmidt III, Ph.D., a former clinical director for Washington State’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, as the agency’s Director of Structured Programming and Accountability.
Schmidt has extensive experience working with youth in corrections and residential care, both in Washington state and as a consultant to many other agencies. He’s worked with rural and urban facilities, in the US and abroad, including Norway, where his model program for adolescent group homes was adopted nationally.
His new position at TJJD will focus on supporting the structured environment and treatment approaches that help youth make needed behavioral changes and build toward a more successful life.
“TJJD has already laid the important groundwork for this system of care, beginning with Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) and the Texas Model. Trauma-informed care principles are core in working with youth in juvenile justice settings, particularly the youth in secure settings,” Schmidt said.
He added that he begins this new position with a deep respect for direct-care staff and their pivotal role in a youth’s success.
“Direct care staff are with the youth when they need guidance and assistance,” said Schmidt. “Staff often find themselves in some of the most intense interpersonal situations we can imagine, from situations where youth are intensely hot emotionally to situations where youth may be hopeless and ready to give up.”
In a corrections environment, staff need a variety of reliable tools to navigate a multiplicity of situations so they can best help the youth manage events, emotions, and their own behavior, he said.
“I’ve learned as much from the talented and gifted staff I have worked with as I did in school, and my goal is to help create programs that share these 'tools that work' in the settings where we meet our youth.”
In his early years in corrections, Schmidt recalls, “it was truly eye-opening to see how the principles and practices I read about in textbooks were being used by naturally gifted staff with the youth they served.
“I also realized what incredibly tough work it is to be working where youth are living, and helping youth who lack critical skills of emotion regulation and problem-solving to manage the stress of being away from family and under constant watch in a highly structured setting. So I knew I wanted to learn everything I could from staff who were super effective.”
Schmidt says he’s excited to begin his work at TJJD and has been impressed by the staff and administrators he’s met since starting with the agency on March 6.
“I can see that there is a mission to create the best programs and state agency in the country to serve the youth here. I want to be a part of this team, and a part of creating that history here in Texas.”
After receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Washington, Schmidt worked and conducted research under the supervision of Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
He brought Linehan’s insights and clinical practices to staff working with youth who had emotion regulation disorders and had been removed from their homes.
“She developed a package of skills for people who struggled to manage their intense emotions, and who engage in behaviors that created crisis situations for themselves and those around them,” Schmidt said. “These same tools seemed like a perfect fit for the challenges that youth in juvenile justice settings have.”
In 2002, Washington State’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) hired Schmidt as the system’s first clinical director. He chaired the workgroup that developed the Integrated Treatment Model (ITM) -- a residential DBT model -- for JRA and oversaw its implementation across all JRA residential beds in the state.
After putting these programs in place, Schmidt saw line staff embrace and employ the tools that Linehan had developed, prompting measurable success for the youth in their care.
“The treatment is based on meeting youth where they are, having a genuine relationship with them, and working with youth to define a life that is meaningful to them,” Schmidt said.
“Use of these tools in one of the most behaviorally challenging units in Washington’s system led to a reduction in assaults, assaults on staff, and self-harming, as well as treatment refusal.
The youth’s school attendance also improved, as did their completion rates for substance abuse and other treatment programs. They kept their jobs and were able to move to less secure settings.
Early research on this approach suggests that this approach can lead to reductions in recidivism, better reentry outcomes and safe reductions in the use of psychotropic medications.
Seeing the promising results in Washington, Schmidt sought to help others. Over the next years, as a consultant to US agencies and abroad, from “tiny county jails to large urban systems to group homes,” he shared the tools he’d seen work in Washington state, providing training in interventions that direct-care staff could understand and use in day-to-day operations.
He also continued to work with Linehan, working with her from 2006-2016 to develop standards for comprehensive DBT programs and create the Linehan Board of Certification (DBT-LBC) in 2016. He is a DBT-LBC certified clinician and founding chair of the DBT-LBC Program Certification committee, which helps clients seeking treatment find clinicians in their community who are providing DBT that meets the set standards.
Schmidt’s work at TJJD will be informed by this broad experience and extend to working with data to help define, explain, and measure progress as the Texas system integrates these best practices.
“All levels and levers of the organization must be employed to understand and work from the same principles and practices,” he said.
“I’ll be working closely with facility staff, trainers, mental health providers, and administrators to first learn and understand what has already been done, and then to see where I can help to implement TJJD’s vision of best practices that create a safe working environment for staff and living environment for youth, a rich experience for teams working together with youth, and meaningful behavior change as youth learn to succeed within the institutions and then back in the community.
“I believe that good programs support and create excellent staff, and teams work best together when we understand our roles, goals and the tools we have to work with. If I can support TJJD to continue to define and implement a solid structure for treatment, then the staff and youth here will produce amazing outcomes together.”
Youth at Gainesville State School 'bubbling with enthusiasm' over new vocal program led community volunteers
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
Some talented and hard-working students at the Gainesville State School are getting the chance to express themselves in a creative and educational way with the launch of a regular program of vocal workshops.
It started in May of 2022 when Dennis Castiglione of Harmony Foundation International reached out to Kevin Hill, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Gainesville campus. Castiglione was interested in bringing an HFI program, Power of Harmony, to the school.
Power of Harmony engages youth in correctional facilities using the power of music. Volunteers coach the youth, demonstrate cooperation, and arrange performances. The organization believes that these experiences can help change the life trajectory of incarcerated youth by introducing vocal ensemble singing and positive role models.
“We got Dennis out here as a visitor,” said Hill. “We gave him a tour and he talked about what they do and we brainstormed an idea of how to introduce him to the school. We decided to have them perform for the next Family Day.”
That November Family Day, a two-day event held at Gainesville, featured performances by two barbershop quartets from the singing group Vocal Majority, a men’s chorus based in Dallas.
“The Vocal Majority is easily the world’s greatest men’s chorus,” said Castiglione. “I know that sounds pretty outrageous, but they are. Not only in terms of their abilities, they’re thirteen-time world champions at the International Barbershop Chorus Competition, but they are wonderful, giving people who are socially aware and always ready to help their community. They were the logical partner for me in Texas.”
Castiglione had chosen Gainesville largely for practical purposes: It was close to where Vocal Majority rehearsed.
“I called Mr. Hill and told him about the program and asked him if this was something he thought would be a good fit at Gainesville and he said ‘Absolutely’ and I said ‘Great, I’ll be there next Thursday.’”
“I explained more about the program to Mr. Hill and Mr. Claybrook (Stephen Claybrook, Family Enrichment Specialist at Gainesville) and they loved the idea. I told them it’s an opportunity to give them a creative outlet, it’s an opportunity for them to understand the power of singing in harmony, the power of singing with a group of people and making something better than what you could do by yourself. That’s what we strive to accomplish.”
Castiglione went directly from Gainesville to where the Vocal Majority were rehearsing and quickly got them excited about the project.
“I just married need with talent, honestly,” Castiglione said.
“Launching it on Family Day was really Mr. Hill’s and Mr. Claybrook’s idea. They said this would introduce every student to Power of Harmony not only by performing for them but by telling them your story and we’ll take it from there. Honestly, that was a brilliant move, one I plan to emulate at the other facilities where I do this, because not only was I able to share the Power of Harmony’s story, I was able to get the parents excited about the project as well as the students.”
The real test would be the performances. Depending on how the people gathered at Family Day received the Vocal Majority, that would give Castiglione, Hill, and Claybrook an idea how the youth at Gainesville would feel about participating in the project. By several accounts, things couldn’t have gone better. The performances, by quartets within Vocal Majority called “Studio Talk” and “Clutch,” were enthusiastically received by students and parents alike.
Next up was getting a sense of how many of the students were interested in being a part of the project, and there was a surprise on that front. Over forty youth expressed interest for a class that would only have seven members. That meant there would have to be tryouts.
Only students without any major rule violations in the last 30 days and passing all their classes would be allowed to participate.
The tryouts were similar to television-styled competition shows, with members of the staff serving as judges. Each youth performed a song of their choosing as well as having to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The youth selected (J. M., D.F., C.M., J.B., L.S., Z.B., N.B.) represent a mix of tenor and baritone/bass voices.
Castiglione and Vocal Majority member Donovan Davis were there for the first class on Feb. 8. “It really went as well as I could’ve hoped,” Castiglione said.
“Those young men were just bubbling with enthusiasm, not to mention that they had extraordinary voices. I started vocal warm-ups, and they matched pitch right out of the gate. I was moved by their interest, their performance, and the feedback I’ve gotten since then from the other instructors. The instructors have told me that these guys are magic. They want to be there, they’re having fun," he said.
The goal is for these classes to be ongoing, where members will come and go as their time at Gainesville ends, and new members will go on in their place. There’s also a recording studio in the school’s chapel that hasn’t been used for some time that members of the Vocal Majority plan to restore. The class will perform and record songs as they go along and the youth will get to keep their own copies of the recordings. There’s also the goal that over time these youth will perform at the school and other local facilities.
“I’ve really been encouraged by how well they were able to harmonize and embrace the a cappella style of singing,” Hill said. Among the songs the students have been working on are “Lean on Me” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
(Photos: Youth in a workshop with Castiglione; members of the Vocal Majority in Dallas perform at Gainesville State School in November.)