Carlos thrived in art class, and favored watercolor, creating several bright, happy works such as this one.
By Y. Denise Caldwell, Community and Family Resource Coordinator - Northern District
Santa’s elves were seen recently busily sorting and wrapping gifts for McFadden youth. The six elves, all employees of the Levi Strauss HR department came together to provide presents for the 19 youth at McFadden Ranch and one youth on parole in Tyler.
Regina Contreraz, Tomieka Polk, LaDonia Butler, Shalonda Welborn, Melissa Ortega and Ken Kolsti spent Wednesday morning sorting, wrapping and bagging jeans, shoes, shirts, socks and backpacks. They also donated a $25 gift card to each youth.
Their actions confirmed their motto, “Giving Back Never Goes Out of Style.”
Ken Kolsti, a former McFadden volunteer and mentor, spearheaded the event. “I don’t have time to mentor like I used to,” he said. “But I still care about the kids.”
His passion motivated his co-workers to become involved and although they had never been to McFadden, they felt compelled to help. They eagerly organized and sorted the clothes by size and each took a name and got busy wrapping and filling the gift bags. Each youth will receive a large gift bag containing a pair of Levi jeans, four pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a pair of tennis shoes, a back pack and the gift card.
Many others also are generously giving their time and gifts to enrich holidays for youth at the McFadden Halfway House in Flower Mound.
Volunteers from the Fellowship United Methodist Church worked with the boys to decorate Christmas stockings, and plan to tiptoe back with candy and other items to fill those stockings for Christmas Eve.
Gateway Prison Ministry is donating exercise equipment - a punching bag and weights – and also has donated gifts for staff. The Ministry will have a Christmas celebration with the youth on Dec. 20, where they will distribute their gifts, watch a movie and eat pizza.
The McFadden Community Advisory Council will provide Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner, including ham, tamales, sides, desserts and more. They also generously donated refreshments and movies for the holiday break, so youth will enjoy hot dogs, chips and salsa, hot chocolate and more.
Staff and administrators at McFadden are grateful for the many holiday offerings.
By Fidel Garcia, Community Volunteer Coordinator, Evins Regional Juvenile Center
Quietly and away from the limelight, several groups of dedicated individuals gather each December at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center to host Christmas parties for about 130 boys across 10 dorms.
These groups of volunteers represent a cross-section of the community. They are not shy or afraid to speak up for these boys or to them, firmly believing that these young men can turn their lives around and do well.
One volunteer, Ernesto Duran, a sales manager for an international firm, had just arrived from Columbia the night before. Yet Duran made time to coordinate the meal and gifts for the boys. During the party, he exhorted them to do better, promising them that with effort, they could.
Speaking in Spanish to the youth, many of whom grew up in Spanish-speaking households, Duran said, “Nosotros venimos contigo porque te amamos y queremos que tengas exito y quieremos que vuelvas a casa con tu familia.” (We come to you because we love you and want you to succeed and go back home with family).
In the spirit of the Christmas season, the volunteer groups bring in a variety of special foods, sweets and soft drinks. Each group has their own way of creating their party. Some bring in live music and sing carols with the boys, while others bring in CD players and perform skits for them.
This past Saturday, it was the Catholic Dioceses of Brownsville’s turn to host the party. They served the Rio Grande Valley’s traditional Christmas meal: a plate full of steaming tamales, rice, and beans with hot sauce and sweet bread.
“We don’t get this every day and the smell of this food remains me of home,” declared one youth from Nuevo Laredo as he paused to savor the moment and smell the food on his plate
As the party came to an end, each youth received a Christmas card with a special message for them and a $15 credit to their personal student account to be used for canteen or phone calls with family. Volunteers told the youth that Jesus blesses and cares for them.
As the volunteer group headed out the door, one youth shouted, “Thank you! Thank you for coming here for us.”
Other sponsors hosting Christmas parties at Evins this year were: First Baptist Church of Edinburg-My Brothers Keepers, South Texas Youth Volunteer Council, Apostolado de la Cruz, Knights of Columbus and several other parishes from the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Sandy Brown was a big Darrell K Royal fan. As a successful high school athlete at Lexington, about 70 miles east of Austin, Brown thought he might like to play for the legendary University of Texas coach. That didn’t happen when he decided to attend Texas A&M instead. But it’s not a big regret, because Brown has spent the last 40 years living his other dream, to work as a Texas high school coach and help kids in need.
It’s a job that more than fills his days because many of his varsity players haven’t even been on a school football field before. They did not spend their childhoods getting sized for Pop Warner football, trying out for club sports or learning sportsmanship at highly regulated school track meets.
His players were on a different trajectory, veering into trouble with the law and eventually being committed to TJJD for serious offenses. They land on Brown’s doorstep at the Giddings State School, angry, sad, dejected, disconnected, but also, with time, eager for a new opportunity -- just like any other teenager.
“They haven’t had the kind of chances we have had,” Brown says, as we visit before a football practice. He explains that many of his band of walk-ons have come from truly difficult backgrounds, with absent or incarcerated parents, abusive families, or families rocked by addiction. “They’ve never been trusted; they’ve always been doubted and ridiculed.”
So Brown’s first step is to re-set their expectations -- upward. He tells them they can win.
The young men Brown coaches have not often heard that message. In many cases, they’ve heard the opposite.
They burrow into this new positive edict like cleats on turf.
“He actually cares about us more than the game,” a player says, as we watch the early September practice on a field behind the gymnasium at Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southeast.
The sun is fierce and the 100-degree day has turned the grass so hot it’s untouchable. But the players and their coach, tromping the field in his customary khakis and sun hat, appear impervious to the heat. As he teaches running patterns to yet another set of youth with faint backgrounds in organized sports, Brown works furiously, though gently, to instill hope and encouragement.
“Actually, at my first game,” says the youth, his voice incredulous, “he told us, ‘Win or lose, y’all have fun’!”
“He’s there for us, emotionally,” says another young man, eyes on the field.
You can almost see the invisible props playbook that Brown runs concurrently with the actual X’s and O’s he and assistant coach Arthur Aviles are teaching. By virtue of long experience, it’s instinctive: A temperately voiced redirect (you got this), a dance step to demo a roll out (I’m one of you), a hop into the huddle where he’s enveloped by the team (I’m with you . . . take charge now).
Boiled down Brown’s approach is remarkably simple: He offers guidance and trust.
“If you trust someone, they’ll trust you. If you love someone, they’ll love you back. Even if they haven’t loved anyone before,” he says. His philosophy aligns well with today’s focus on trauma informed corrections and has been intuitive for Brown since 1979, when he began coaching youthful offenders at Giddings.
For countless players, Brown’s leap of faith in them has proven to be a mighty lure.
Over the years, as the athletic director of the campus high school, Lone Star Southeast, he’s helped the youth defeat the odds against them and taken track, basketball and football teams and players to multiple TAPPS regional playoffs and even state-level competitions. The Giddings State School boys’ track and field team won the state championship in 1996, 1997 and 2001. Giddings State School football teams made it to the playoffs in 2001 and 2018. In that latter playoff they lost a hard-fought (44-32) battle with their state school rivals, the Gainesville Tornadoes.
Brown has been regaled in Sports Illustrated and several Texas publications for summoning talent and sportsmanship from his raw recruits, and the national Positive Coaching Alliance honored him with a “Double Goal Coach” award for teaching life lessons alongside sports.
He enjoys helping players find their place to shine in all sports, and in the world. But football occupies a special place in his heart.
“From the time I was little, I always loved football. When I started a football book, I couldn’t put it down. And I would read the same book over and over, which I guess was a premonition of a future calling,” he says.
He first worked at the Giddings campus as it was being built in the early 1970s. Later, after becoming the first in his family to finish college, he returned to Giddings as a dorm parent. The rolling rural area between Austin and Houston is home territory. Brown grew up in nearby Lexington, a town of about 1,200 residents, where he played on winning varsity teams and set his sights on a coaching career.
But it was his own difficult early childhood that played a pivotal role in drawing him to the state school. He remembers suffering physically and emotionally at the hands of an abusive father, and feeling the sting of abuse reverberate when he went to school where students once noticed that a beating had left him bleeding through his clothes.
Family life was complicated and often confusing. “I didn’t understand it then, I do now,” he says, offering that he’s worked through his emotions about many things through poetry he writes. One poem, “My Guys,” speaks of his love for his players and students. Another is about his father, a child of the Great Depression and veteran of World War II; a “hard man” who was disengaged from much of Brown’s life, yet always showed up at his high school football games
Much later, as Brown and his wife Janet raised their own four children, the two men reconciled, and ultimately Brown served as a caregiver to his dying father. But the young Sandy Brown harbored a frustrating anger that even led to him being “locked up” briefly as a teenager, he said.
It’s no wonder Brown feels attuned to the trauma many youth at Giddings have endured and sees himself as well positioned to help others unwind their pain.
“I relate to these kids. I understand them and I believe they understand me,” he says. “We get along pretty good. I don’t have a need to have power and control over them.”
In the early days, the Giddings campus housed troubled young men and women with a range of back stories and offenses. Today it is strictly a high security campus for young men who’ve committed felonies, such as armed robbery, assaults, even homicide.
Brown says he makes a point of not knowing the specific crimes committed by his players. That is not what matters on the playing field or going forward, and he doesn’t want to be influenced by or draw any wrongful conclusions based on their cases. Just as he wants his players to keep the right focus -- on their future, their grades and their behavior – he, too, aims for the proper perspective.
“I judge my success here not by how many games we win, but by how many kids smile and speak to me each day – am I making a difference?” he says.
Clearly, the answer is yes, says fellow TAPPS coach Beck Brydon.
“I wish there were more Sandy Browns in the business of football and education. He has a gentle spirit about him; I know of no football coach who doesn’t think highly of him,” said Brydon, the athletic director at Regents School of Austin, which played the Giddings Indians for several years as part of the same TAPPS district.
At all their match ups, the Giddings Mustangs (formerly called the Indians) acquitted themselves well, Brydon said, musing that the Giddings’ boys are simply a group of 17-years-olds whose life mistakes have been more serious than those of other 17-year-olds.
“That’s the core of what Sandy and I do,” said Brydon, whose youth once brought Bibles for the Giddings players. “We lead and mentor 17-year-olds.”
“I always tell the kids – sure we want to win, everyone wants to win – but the best thing you can do is behave well,” Brown says. “It has to be behavior first at this type of facility, because if it’s not – if you start trying to win too badly and take kids to games who won’t act right, then you lose the whole thing. You won’t get invited back.”
Back in the 1980s, it was Brown who secured the privilege for the Giddings teams to play off-campus games. With the support of the state school superintendent, he offered local school officials a solemn pledge. “I looked them in the eye and I told them I don’t want to play your junior high or your JV, I want to play your varsity, win or lose, and I’ll make you this promise, I won’t bring anyone to your school who would embarrass you or embarrass me. All of them will be on their best behavior.”
Brown has held to that commitment for four decades.
“As long as Sandy has been coaching, there has never been an incident, and opposing coaches and fans routinely make comments praising Sandy’s teams’ great behavior and sportsmanship,” said Dennis Smith, longtime principal of Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southwest.
After playing local schools as a non-conference team in the first years, Brown won a spot for his teams within the TAPPS league, a better fit for Giddings, with its special limitations. They played 11-man football until 2018, when they dropped to the six-man football bracket as the population declined at Giddings.
Fans might be surprised to see a state school facility in the lineup with Christian and private school teams. But the alliance has proven fruitful. After games, win or lose, the teams typically join hands in a large prayer circle or hug and bow heads in small huddles. And there’s Sandy, the quiet overseer in the middle of it. A storyteller who laughs easily in other settings, he oddly somber, even circumspect after games. “He is a very spiritual man and gives all the credit to God for his accomplishments,” says Smith. “His life at Giddings has been a calling that he has gladly answered.”
Brown regularly hears from former students who still cherish the opportunities he gave them.
As we chat he falls easily into a story about a young woman who beat back her asthma, her family woes, lack of confidence and “less than stellar” times, to blaze into first place in the 300 meter hurdles at the state meet in 2001.
Brown was amazed by her fortitude, and how she swore she’d take first, even though she lacked training and her initial times were far too slow. He recounts how he tried to temper her expectations. “I said, Crystal, what did I ever tell you to make you think you could do this?”
Relishing the story, he draws it out a bit. She grew measurably faster each week, and at the state meet crossed the finish line, clocking an amazing time but falling on her knees, gasping for air. He ran to her with her inhaler, and as he looked on with concern, she caught her breath and spat out: “I told you I could do it!”
Brown laughs heartily. It’s his favorite admonition of all time. He still hears from Crystal, now a mother of three who lives a distance away but has been known to turn up at a Giddings competition. He shares her last text:
“Hey there, Happy Father's day, I love you and miss you and I hope you feel the love and admiration around you today that you truly deserve. To this day and forever more you will be the father of your babies, but a Dad to many-many more, and I'm glad you are mine.”
By Y. Denise Caldwell, Volunteer Services Coordinator - Fort Worth
TJJD volunteer Catherine Stephens, aka “Ms. Cassie”, held her first “Soulful Cooking” class at Willoughby House in June. Six months later, students look forward to her classes, and not just for the food.
The students say the cooking class is about more than just cooking and eating, it is about learning a variety of things, such as the meditation before and after the class that helps the youth learn techniques to regulate their moods.
“I like the meditation,” said M.L.. “I use it to calm down and to help get to sleep at night.”
“The deep breaths keep me from getting too angry,” said T.W..
“I’ve seen their confidence grow along with their cooking skills,” Stephens said proudly. “They read the recipes, they are way more confident in their techniques, like measuring and sautéing and using the hand mixer. Their cooking skills have really improved.”
The class is open to all of the youth at Willoughby House. Stephens has taught sessions, introducing the students to new and various dishes. She also teaches grocery shopping and budgeting, using coupons and grocery lists.
More than 20 students have taken at least one class, learning how to shop for and prepare delicious and nutritious meals.
Recently, four students, T.W., I.M., M. B. and M.L., cooked “breakfast for dinner” - omelets, pancakes and bacon.
The class started with a guided meditation, which captivated the boys. They practiced relaxed breathing, eyes closed, while sitting and lying down in a comfortable position. Ms. Cassie had them focus on their breathing and then picture a light and the planets and the universe, and then coming back to the light.
They unpacked the “prep work,” all of the pre-cut, chopped or cooked ingredients that Stepehens brings, and all the food for the project: two dozen eggs, a pack of bacon, a bag of flour, a pint of buttermilk, stick of butter, onions, chives (from her herb garden), sweet red peppers, blocks of cheddar and pepper jack cheese, sugar, syrup, honey, and peanut butter for the pancakes.
T.W. read the recipe aloud and the rest followed along.
Stephens taught them to crack eggs like a professional, one handed and two handed; measure wet and dry ingredients separately and to use a whisk and a hand mixer and other kitchen moves.
They tested the frying pan to make sure it was hot enough, with drops of water that had to sizzle. They lined a cookie sheet with foil so they could put the bacon in the oven, a first for them as they were used to frying the bacon.
“That was good,” said I.M. “You didn’t get popped with grease.”
The homemade pancakes were various sizes and shapes, even a Texas shaped one. The omelets were new to some.
“I knew about scrambled eggs,” said M.L. “But I never had an omelet. It was kind of strange but tasted good.”
Over recent months, the Willoughby boys have made several dishes, with students’ favorites being Philly cheesesteaks, fried chicken, orange chicken, Whattaburger-style honey BBQ chicken strips, chocolate cheesecake, chocolate chip cookies and of course, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, sunny-side-up eggs and omelets.
The plan is to create a recipe book that they can share with others and take home.
Some of the boys are already thinking about how they can use their new skills after they leave Willoughby.
“It’ll be great when I get a girlfriend and can cook for her,” said I.M.
“Girls like it when you cook for them and I like learning how to cook new dishes.”
Carlos’ eyes shine as he explains that art has been a lifesaver during his stay at TJJD.
“I live, eat and breathe art. It’s something I cannot stop doing. It helps me with everything – calming down, expressing my feelings, reminding me of home,” he says, flipping through a sketchbook filled with anime figures and landscapes.
Carlos (a pseudonym) enjoyed art as a child, but didn’t think he had much talent until he resumed drawing and painting while at Lone Star High School North at the Gainesville State School.
There, art teacher LaVerne Harrison, seeing his talent, challenged Carlos to “show me your best effort.”
The result: A watercolor of "The Hundred Acre Wood," the fictional land of Winnie the Pooh, which is now featured on the Texas Juvenile Justice Department website.
In fact, student artists like Carlos at campuses all across the agency have contributed their artwork to bring the website to life.
Their colorful paintings and drawings are the only artwork used to illustrate the site, helping to reinforce the idea that TJJD is an agency focused on youth.
As for Carlos, he has fond memories of the Pooh stories his parents read to him as a small boy. Those memories and his aspirations for the future infuse his art works, which feature bright images of the beach and forests and figures from anime fantasy worlds. Unlike many youth who enter the juvenile justice system, Carlos comes from an intact, attentive family and during his time at TJJD he yearned to return to the comfort of home, where his younger siblings awaited. He wanted to put this detour in his life firmly behind him.
Carlos thrived in art class, and favored watercolor, creating several bright, happy works such as this one.
His efforts to change became apparent while he was in high school at the Gainesville campus, where art became his vehicle for change.
“He was focused on every project he worked on. He even did pictures for another teacher. He also did a mural for the football team in our weight room. He would come to class to do his daily assignment and then rush off to the gym to draw and paint,” Harrison recalled. “Those were happy days for him.”
Harrison’s support and the privilege to paint those murals at Gainesville unleashed Carlos’ drive. In class, he tried acrylics, pencil and watercolor, finding the latter to be his medium of choice.
Not every student arrives in class wanting to work, or even believing they can create any worthy art, says Harrison. But often, even those who profess not to care can be coaxed into trying. Soon they are doodling away in a sketch pad or fiddling with a piece of clay.
“Art can be very soothing,” she says. Soon, she’ll look up, and the latest reluctant recruit is bringing her a drawing or 3-D object, offering it for assessment and a bit surprised that it came out.
“It gives them a sense of pride. They can say, ‘That’s mine, I did that!’ We all like recognition for things we do, big or small. Like somebody says, ‘Wow, that’s good!’ And they like it.”
Harrison should know. She’s taught at the Gainesville State School for 25 years, teaching art and team leadership. ”It has been fun and I’ve felt I made a difference,” she says. “God led me here and I’m going to stay until he tells me to move.”
Tami Sanders also has found her calling as an art teacher for TJJD, where she forged a special bond with students during three years teaching at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility.
A former foster child and teen mom, Sanders said she could relate to the youth who’ve faced difficult circumstances growing up. They knew she didn’t see their situation as a hypothetical and that gave her voice weight.
“I don’t lecture them, but I can talk to them,” she said. Sometimes a youth would tell her that they robbed or stole because they needed Jordan shoes or some other consumer item of the moment. And that’s her opening. “I tell them . . . Were shoes worth your freedom? Is this the kind of life you want?”
Art students at the McLennan County facility took over the surfaces of Sanders area, painting lively murals.
Sanders also shared her own story of having turned her life around, joining the Navy, using the GI Bill to get a college degree, becoming a teacher and raising her daughter, who’s now a college graduate as well.
In the classroom, she likes to offer the youth many choices, a salvo in a setting that’s highly structured by necessity. “I don’t want to be that teacher that I didn’t like growing up, who said, ‘We’re all going to paint fruit today’.” Some students may not want to paint fruit, says Sanders, who previously worked as a commercial artist and a public school art teacher in Tomball, Texas.
So instead of dictating one subject, she offers the class broad themes to think about. The day we spoke, the youth were working on the concept of “emphasis.” Some students were noodling on that theme with pencils, others with paint, still others with papier-mâché.
As the creativity flowed over the years, Sanders’ room morphed into a colorful, private art gallery, with student murals of dragons and fishes on the walls and collections of art objects arrayed on shelves.
“Art saved my life, and if it can help them get through their time here, that’s great.”
A few weeks before he returned home, Carlos reflected over his early work with Ms. Harrison, including his first acrylic painting, a portrait of two cuddly anime figures that’s surprisingly good and well- proportioned for a first effort. Another sketch, in stark black, white and red, features a different anime character, Naruto.
Naruto is crying red tears.
Like his artwork Carlos is a complex blend of light and dark. Direct and forthright, he flashes a quick smile, direct gaze and positive demeanor that will serve him well as he ventures onward.
Harrison saw Carlos’ first work, an anime in acrylic, as evidence of his natural talent.
But his smile wavers as he scans the dayroom of the halfway house, his temporary residence, with its lockers, guard desk and other reminders of his missteps. He says he knows he must stay away from negative influences and stick to his work and education plans when he’s back home.
At TJJD, he earned his graduate equivalency degree and gained work experience at a McDonalds near the halfway house. He is eager to put his learnings to work, save for college, and get on with his future, including his art.
“I really do want to pursue something in graphic arts,” he muses. “I didn’t think of it as a career. . . “
But maybe; maybe, he says, it could be.