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Like everyone, youth and staff at TJJD have had to deal with certain limitations during the coronavirus outbreak.
And while that has created challenges, it has also produced discoveries as youth try new things.
At Gainesville State School, the young men are taking advantage of the spring weather and outdoor spaces to fly kites, exercise with hula hoops and coax coaches into impromptu football practices.
They’re fixing bikes and working outdoors in the horticulture garden, which remains accessible while the school building is closed.
Even so, some days demand extra creativity.
When a group of boys recently seemed at loose ends to fill their recreation time, Community Relations Coordinator Robin Motley remembered the parachute she had stashed away for just such moments.
She and the boys’ case manager Kyle Hellinger and Youth Coaches Desire Bostice and Colnesha Tucker got the game going. Soon, the youth were all smiles.
It was also a teaching moment, or more to the point, a self-teaching moment. The young men, who’d been struggling the hour before, found themselves working as a team and overcoming their lassitude.
“They pretended the parachute was their environment and the balls (bouncing in the parachute) were their emotions,” Motley said. “So, in effect, they were learning to communicate how they felt.”
This was just one of the many new activities staff have been trying out as they replace gaps in schedules caused by restrictions related to the pandemic, which have curtailed outside visitors and temporarily suspended outside community service work.
Coaches, volunteer and recreation staffs have been sharing ideas across TJJD to broaden engagement opportunities and keep activities fresh.
“It has been challenging at times,” Motley said, “but the kids have been adapting quite well.”
Photos: Robin Motley
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Welding classes at Lone Star High School North get underway quickly. As soon as the heavy metal door to the shop slams closed, students crisscross the floor, briskly rolling out machines, donning flame resistant jackets and snapping on face shields.
A few hellos, a gathering of tools and the shop hums like a vintage car. During our visit early this year, motors whirred and sparks flew, giving the room an air of possiblities. Flames shot from the welding “sticks,” as they seared through metal. Each weld inched toward a creation, a barbecue smoker or a trailer hitch, and charted the student's progress toward a series of certificates confirming their competence as a welding apprentice.
It’s no wonder the students waste no time getting started. The shop offers both creative and practical rewards.
For C.H., the class became his purpose and solace during a 10-month stay at Gainesville State School. He saw the metalcraft as his path toward independence, welding being a needed and well-paid trade. He also discovered it could be an emotional anchor, offering, despite the crackling din of the shop, zen moments. He felt it when fully immersed in welding tasks.
“Whenever you’re under the welding hood and all you can really hear is the welding machine and the arc, it’s just a calm place for me I guess,” he said.
When C.H. got to Gainesville, he’d already served time in a county probation program for youthful offenders. There, he excelled at academics. Presented with online classes to study for his graduate equivalency certificate, he completed the 20+ credits he needed in lightning speed. In just nine months he had his GED, an amazing feat for someone still in his middle teens.
He arrived at Gainesville State School, merely 16 years old, and effectively done with high school and ready for next steps.
Fortunately, Gainesville’s well-established welding class, helmed by veteran teacher Denver Foster, stood ready for students who need a new challenge. Foster and other Vo-Tech teachers across TJJD say they’re well positioned to help students who may not be headed to college, but are motivated to build career skills.
“As soon as I got here they put me straight into welding classes and I have come to very much love it,” C.H. said in a soft voice. “I like the ability to make things. You control that metal and it does what you want it to do, if you handle it right.”
After taking the pre-requisite safety tests, he quickly moved to fabricating products. Foster watched with pleasure as C.H. helped with a big class project, the creation of a barbecue smoker, and also assembled and polished four metal practice sleds that the class created for the school’s Tornadoes football team.
Just as he had whipped through online academic classes, C.H. quickly dispatched with all the incremental tests showing he could weld in different positions -- laterally, overhead, and so forth. He earned seven welding certificates and advanced into a new role as a peer mentor helping other students.
“He was like my right hand,” Foster said. “All these boys are like my boys, and I’m like their proud dad.”
C.H. was exceptional, though, and mastered skills at Gainesville that are nearly akin to what he’d acquire at a longer community college program, Foster said.
“He’s got some good prospects that’s for sure. He could make an easy $15 to $18 an hour starting wage in any large market in Texas.”
Tall, soft-spoken and studious, C.H. grew up in a small town in Texas in his paternal grandparents’ home. His mother was “not in the picture” and his father had “one foot in” his life, he said.
He played sports, did well in school and read avidly -- both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series. Reading was good company, but English, was not his favorite academic subject. He enjoyed math, science and history, and when he was sent to a boot camp program, he quickly mastered the online classes in those subjects.
“A lot of it was just easy,” he says, explaining that the online aspect of the courses allowed him to jump ahead and pass tests to demonstrate competence.
Though he’d made some big mistakes in life, landing him in probation, C.H. says he was also learning that putting his mind to a task yielded rewards. After a second violation of the law resulted in his probation being revoked and a commitment to Gainesville, he learned something else.
“I think he was surprised by how much people here were willing to help him,” said his former caseworker Rebecca Williams. She recalls several long and intense conversations with Ryan as he worked out plans for his future.
“He’s such a sweet kid, caring and wants to do good. He’s really the sort of kid who makes you realize why you do this job,” said Williams, who is now the family liaison at Gainesville.
C.H. credits Williams, Foster and several dorm staff with helping him stay motivated and his volunteer mentor Judy Davis with helping him see the big picture.
“My old mentor she used to say that being in the system can either be a stumbling block or a stepping stone, so I used it as much as I could, so it would be easier when I got out,” he said.
Like so many youth at TJJD, C.H. was dealt some tough hands early in life, and as a result, he’s slow to trust and good at putting up emotional walls, Davis said.
“The life that some of these kids have, it really does break your heart,” she said.
At the same time, she says, many youth, like C.H., are driven to help themselves as they approach adulthood. There’s a window of opportunity for mentors, teachers and coaches to reach out, reinforce positive behaviors and offer guidance and support that can make a difference, she said.
Davis always offers to stay in touch with youth she’s helped, she said, but she leaves the decision to maintain ties to them. Sometimes, she’ll get a call from a young man she hasn’t heard from in a long time, telling her they’ve gotten their life on track. She hopes C.H. will be among those who succeed and report back.
“He’s learned a lot of people skills he didn’t have before,” she said. “He’s learned a lot about himself too, what his trigger points are and how he can think differently.”
Now at a halfway house, C.H., now 17, expects to go home in May. He looks forward to reconnecting with his sister and then getting into the workforce as soon as possible, ideally as an apprentice at a commercial welding shop.
Unfortunately, C.H. may again face headwinds as the job market wobbles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he vows to be ready when the jobs openings present themselves.
“As soon as I get a stable job where I can live independently that‘s what I plan on doing.”
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Like many direct care workers in many sectors, TJJD staff have been wearing masks every day on the job.
And no one is rocking the masked look better than the staff at the Mart facility, thanks to family and volunteer staff who went on a hunt for donated masks and the happy coincidence that the Waco area has turned out to be a Texas hotbed of mask production.
But before we get into all that, a little background:
TJJD employees each receive a medical grade disposable mask as they check in for work, which helps protect the youth from exposure to any potential germs that an employee might spread when they sneeze, cough or talk. This is part of many steps the agency put into place to help slow the spread of coronavirus and protect TJJD secure facilities and halfway houses. (See TJJD’s protective measures: https://bit.ly/3bQnj98 )
But cloth masks also are suitable for protecting others from potential droplet spray and TJJD staff members are allowed to wear reusable cloth masks. (By the way, anyone who’s sneezing or coughing a lot or feels sick or is running a fever is not allowed in to work.)
Homemade cloth coverings are acceptable and recommended for use in public settings, according to the CDC, and simply should be washed routinely, based on their use. (CDC guidelines on masks: https://bit.ly/2VLtfLa )
And let’s be honest, homemade masks can be quite comfortable and reassuring when they fit nicely, and even attractive, though of course that’s not the point.
Volunteer and family staff at Mart's McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility were thinking about how to help out with masks and calling people to see if they could locate volunteer seamstresses.
A few calls in they hit the motherlode. A former trauma nurse, Reyna Perales Reyes, and her seamstress mother, Matea Perales, had created Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID and Texas Seamstress for Crisis, organizing a fleet of home seamstresses to supply masks to medical workers facing gaps in protective gear at local hospitals and nursing homes.
The seamstresses, based in their homes across the Waco area, had become a corps of more than 200 and were producing hundreds of masks each day.
Reyes said the organization sprang to life in a burst over its first weekend in mid-March, helped by the Facebook page she set up (Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID) and a community yearning to help out.
“I added all my friends, and I know some community leaders,” said Reyes, who now works in social marketing and serves as a board member of Caritas. “They knew I would organize it well. They invited their friends, and those friends invited their friends.”
As word of the effort grew, businesses jumped in. Soon Waco Masks Seamstress was working out of a building owned by event-supplier Action Rental, which had had to close under pandemic rules. The owner simply handed the key to her, Reyes said, and the building become the hub where donated fabrics could be accepted and stored, patterns assembled, and masks sorted and packaged.
Working with Waco Emergency Operations Center, Reyes, CEO of Texas Seamstress for Crisis, got the new business designated as essential and began collaborating with officials in emergency relief to assure the masks went where most needed.
More businesses and several churches signed on, providing in-kind goods and donations. Banana Scrubs, which had closed a few years earlier, sent over bolts of warehoused fabric, and Shipp Belting began dye-cutting fabric pieces to assist the seamstresses. Masks went out, and continue to go out, to Baylor Scott and White and Providence hospitals, police and fire departments, nursing homes, health clinics and others in critical services. After a few weeks, the group began fulfilling requests from other types of local businesses employing essential workers such as HEB grocers (which also donates to the project) and a local meatpacking plant.
Just as quickly as orders come in, they go out, Reyes said, estimating that each day the operation takes in and sends out 400 or more sewn, washed and ready-to-use double-ply masks.
“They’re still going full speed ahead,” she said. “But I’ve lived 40 years in Waco and Waco is just like that; if you need work done, you’ll find someone to do it. I’ve not had many people drop out, and that, to me, is just amazing.”
And it was also amazing to Mart staff, when they discovered that their direct-care workers could qualify for the donated masks, now that the need in the medical community was easing.
Last week, Family Liaison Robin Black, Community Volunteer Coordinator Tanya Rosas and Assistant Superintendent Emily Shaw gratefully received 400 masks from the group, enough for everyone on staff to receive one.
The Mart facility also had earlier received 25 hand-sewn masks made by Janice Hinton at the request of Mart volunteer Patti Wiley who wanted Phoenix Unit staff to have masks.
As Rosas and Black handed out the masks, they couldn’t help but notice that the donated face coverings, stitched in a dazzling mix of patterns and colors, create a true bright spot in uncertain times.
“When they come and get them,” Rosas said, “staff are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is so sweet for those people to have done that for us’.”
Photo 1: Family Liaison Robin Black, Waco Masks Seamstress CEO Reyna Reyes and Asst. Supt. Emily Shaw posed with their masks.
Photo 2: MCSJCF Supt. Michelle Havranek shows the first batch of masks received.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Judy Davis was disheartened when she heard that in-person visitation at Gainesville State School was being temporarily suspended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
While she agreed with the limitations for the sake of public health, she worried she could no longer deliver a promised sketchpad to a youth she was mentoring, nor would she be able to see him.
And then, snap! She realized that through a combination of old and new technologies, she could navigate this new reality. She popped over to the local post office to mail the sketchpad to her artistic mentee. She tossed in another pad, this one with a grid, for another mentee, thinking maybe now would be a good time for him to discover drawing.
Next, she called Robin Motley, Community Relations Coordinator at Gainesville, and learned she’d be able to video chat with her mentees via Google Duo. After another call to her daughter, Davis had the app installed and had visited with each of “her” boys.
“You never know if you’ll be that one important person,” said Davis, a retiree who has mentored at Gainesville State School since 2000. One caring person can help another to turn their life around, she said, noting that many of the youth she’s mentored come from homes beset by addiction, neglect or domestic violence.
“The life that some of these kids have, they really do break your heart,” she said, explaining that she tries to help the youth envision a positive path forward, free of the dysfunction.
“My advice is ‘you only have to make one right decision, and that’s the next one. So make sure the next decision you make is the right decision for your future’,” she said.
Davis plans to stay in touch during this period of social distancing to show the youth that mentors will be there for them, though she suspects the youth may actually adjust to the changes in routine more easily than the mentors.
“This is new to them, but it’s like a different chapter in their book. For the rest of us, it’s like a whole new book.”
McFadden Ranch Halfway House
Like Davis, Lincoln Carroll was dismayed when he learned that mentors with Must Care, the non-profit group he founded, would not be able to visit McFadden Ranch Halfway House in Flower Mound for the foreseeable future.
While the suspension of visitation was necessary, the change meant that on Tuesday nights, the music would literally stop. The program Carroll had initiated, led by local music educator Jamal Umer, would be on hiatus. More than a dozen youth had been participating in the informal classes, with Umer coaching them in rap composition and mixing.
“I think that it’s one of their favorites,” Carroll said. “We hate that Umer cannot go there now, but we fully understand.” Carroll is working on a possible work-around to restart the classes using video conferencing or YouTube. In the meantime, he sent the youth at McFadden a gift of some $200 worth of board games and art supplies.
“We like helping. We’re blessed in different ways and are fortunate enough to be able to give back and happy to help,” said Carroll, a financial services expert who lives in Frisco with his wife and 12-year-old son.
He founded We Care to work with at-risk youth in schools and juvenile detention.
“I grew up for 17 years and I did not have a father in my life,” he said. “I always wanted to give back. Our mission is to give a ‘father’ to the fatherless. A lot of problems in society stem from a father not being around.”
Evins Regional Juvenile Center
I have you and your Mama and brothers in prayer, M. . . . Stay strong with your goal of that purple shirt, if you can make it. You have to be smart and think before you act - and you'll see that everything will work out for you. I am sending you another copy of how to pray the Rosary - it is very important! . . . Saludos!! – excerpt of a letter to a youth from a volunteer mentor
Five-hundred miles across the state, volunteers at Evins Regional Juvenile Center, in Edinburg, share that understanding that boys need father figures. Sometimes, mentors can help with that, says Ernesto Duran, a volunteer with the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.
Duran’s group serves Catholic youth at Evins with one-on-one mentoring and also delivers a meal once a month to a wider group of young men. A Baptist mentoring group shares this effort, serving a special monthly meal to the remaining portion of Evins’ youth.
After learning about the visitation restrictions to curb COVID-19, the Diocese volunteers decided to begin writing letters to maintain ties to their mentees. Each volunteer will be writing to three to six boys, so that the 100 to 120 youth to whom they normally serve meals will each receive correspondence.
“We’re telling them not to worry, that we’re here, and not to worry about the virus. Even out here in ‘the free’, as they call it, we’re sheltering in our own houses. So we feel what they feel sometimes,” Duran said.
Reflecting on this time in which people must take strong actions to protect others, Duran said the mentors and youth may even be building stronger bonds as they share their thoughts on paper.
“When we mentor on the religious side, we only reach some of the boys (who ask for religious mentoring and training) but right now, we’re reaching a larger group,” he said. “We’re trying to motivate them to have a little patience and just giving a little bit of hope.”
Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
It was just another day as Superintendent Michelle Havranek and Assistant Superintendent Emily Shaw began the drive home after work at TJJD’s McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility at Mart.
Until it wasn't.
As the two reached a rise in Highway 164, they confronted a chaotic scene. A van and a truck had crashed head on moments before. The van, its front end crushed, had spun onto its side and was blocking the middle of the road. The truck had rolled into the ditch, and in each vehicle, a driver was trapped.
Havranek ran to the truck and saw that the young women driver, conscious but injured, was trapped by the steering wheel and tightly belted in. She told Shaw they would need to cut the woman out.
Luckily, Shaw had a box cutter in her car. She went to work cutting the seatbelts around the woman, while noticing flames growing near the floorboard inside the pickup.
Havranek rushed to the van and pulled out the passenger. She could not reach the trapped driver, but saw that flames were threatening that vehicle as well.
“We were all afraid that the cars were going to blow up,” Shaw said.
Havranek raced along the road, appealing to drivers for a fire extinguisher. The driver of an 18-wheeler produced an extinguisher and they used it to tamp down the flames.
“I was worried about the fire more than anything else,” said Havranek, a former police officer who took the helm at the Mart facility last year.
Meanwhile, Shaw eased the distraught woman from the truck in the ditch. Tugging quickly, while apologizing for causing any pain, Shaw lifted her through the truck window. She took the woman away from the burning truck. Havranek stepped in to help administer first aid to the woman in the other vehicle, using her shirt to staunch the woman’s head wound.
Shaw and Havranek resumed “running up and down 164 asking for fire extinguishers,” Shaw said.
By then, more TJJD staff had arrived to help. Officer Nicole Hoo of the Office of Inspector General (OIG), also on her way home, was handed the fire extinguisher that Havranek acquired from the driver of the 18-wheeler, and assisted with tamping the flames.
Two more OIG officers, Tom Hamilton and Sherry Kingrey, arrived, having answered Hoo’s call for assistance. Coach Howard Anglin and OIG staff Francine Hobbs, answered Havranek’s call to bring fire extinguishers.
“It was great teamwork,” Havranek said.
The local volunteer fire department and EMTs arrived. Firefighters squelched the flames threatening the vehicles and rescuers with Jaws of Life equipment pulled the driver of the van to safety.
“It was scary,” Shaw said, “but God put us there for a reason, for us to be able to help.”
(Photo front to back: Officer Nicole Hoo, Asst. Supt. Emily Shaw, Officer Tom Hamilton and Supt. Michelle Havranek)