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By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
TJJD youth can find great meaning in books as they grow as individuals and reach for a better future. This past week, on Read Across America Day, we took the occasion to ask two staffers – English teacher Jill Fowler at Giddings and Librarian Henry Lewis at Ron Jackson – about some of the most popular titles making the rounds at their campus.
The number one read in our unscientific poll of two: The “Percy Jackson” fantasy adventure stories.
This will be no surprise to teachers, parents and young adult readers who’ve all likely heard of these immensely imaginative novels by San Antonio native Rick Riordan. The fantasies follow youthful modern heroes who find themselves amid Gods and serpents and monsters drawn from Greek mythology.
“Every single chapter of every book has a kid roughly their age escaping by the skin of his teeth,” said Fowler. “And there’s the fantasy aspect. I know that I, myself, read to get OUT of my reality. The boys are no different. Greek gods, Roman gods, magic, creatures from Hades: They are all in Rick Riordan’s work.”
While novels can be a great escape, they’re also a wonderful tool for bonding with others and finding common ground, which fits with TJJD's Texas Model goal of helping youth build strong relationships as they heal from past trauma.
Fowler explained: “One book leads to another, to an entire series, and boys literally sharing their private AND library books with others who see them reading on the dorm. In class, if I mention a book I like and why, a youth will usually share the title of book HE likes and why. That starts the sharing.”
Eventually, she says, this leads to books getting passed around and read so voraciously that their covers are barely hanging on.
“You can find paperback books that are taped back together just so another reading can happen before the book completely falls apart,” she said.
But that ragged book belies the joy it brought and the bonds it helped create among boys from different backgrounds.
Another prolific writer who enjoys popularity in TJJD schools is James Patterson, whose Alex Cross detective series offers the youth many mysteries with twists and turns that challenge them to consider the motivations of the fictional detective and the criminals he pursues.
Patterson “gets into the thoughts and the feelings of the characters,” Fowler said. “A lot of times before you know who the criminal is, you’ll know a lot about him. He gets inside their head.”
Patterson is popular at the Ron Jackson campus too where Lewis says he enjoys helping teen readers find books that speak to them and also books that draw them out of their comfort zone.
The urban teen romances by New Jersey writer Ni-Ni Simone and other similar young adult fiction are perennially popular, says Lewis, who manages the library at Lone Star High School West at Ron Jackson.
The girls really relate to Simone’s narratives and find characters within her books who have a similar lived experience, he says.
Another hugely popular read is “Dear Martin,” a young adult book by Nic Stone about a young African American man who writes rhetorical letters the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he navigates new environments and faces racial profiling.
The author, Lewis says, is essentially asking, “What would Martin Luther King do?” and the students really relate to the social justice themes explored.
Lewis understands that reading levels among the youth vary greatly. TJJD research shows that many students arrive at TJJD behind their grade level, sometimes by several years. He aims to help those who need a boost by providing illustrated Manga books, which naturally provide clues to the text, or offering non-fiction works about careers and hobbies that are visually rich.
Mangas are hugely popular at TJJD, confirms Reading Education Specialist Mary Singer, who works with staff across all facilities to assure students get the help and encouragement they need with reading. That task is greatly helped by librarians across all campsues, who, like Lewis, keep an ear to the ground for books that appeal to the youth.
A social worker who spent 25 years in various roles at residential and outpatient treatment facilities, Lewis says he is always gratified when he can entice a student to read more or nudge even an avid reader to expand outside their favorite genre.
One of his signature methods is to offer the students book pairings.
When a student picks a fiction book to check out, he casts about for a “bonus” book to offer that complements the topic of the novel or mystery they’ve chosen. “I will connect them the books that are in some fashion connected 'in my Winnie the Pool brain’,” he says with a laugh.
For example, Lewis might find a book about careers with horses or dogs to accompany a novel, such as Black Beauty, that features an animal; or he might offer an Italian travel guide to a youth who’s checking out a mystery story set in Italy.
“One book to entice them and maybe another to take them out of their usual genre,” he says.
Like Fowler, Lewis also facilitates discussions about books and encourages the girls at Ron Jackson to write recommendations or reviews of the books they love. He posts these in the hallway, and says they are great conversation starters.
Lewis sees himself as the resident book Sherpa and tries to stay on top of new adult and teen literature so he can make recommendations that get the youth excited about reading.
He’s currently reviewing for possible inclusion “A Piece of Cake: A Memoir,” by Cupcake Brown, who writes about her struggles and triumphs as she rose from addiction and hustling on the streets to go to college, law school and become a practicing lawyer at a major firm.
“I think some of our girls can find hope in that.”
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Youth who are placed on probation suddenly find themselves under the watchful eye of their county and checking in with probation officers every week.
In Bandera County, youth who’ve ended up in juvenile court also quickly find themselves in a canoe, on a hiking trail or taking a cooking class.
The county is not the only one to promote such programs, which are proven ways to help divert youth from getting into worse trouble. But it has developed a reputation for vigorously pursuing such solutions.
“We’re outdoors with kids every day after school for one to three hours…with whatever we’re doing that day - weights, hiking, it could be vocational training,” said Bandera Juvenile Probation Chief Matthew Haynie.
And with each activity, “we’re teaching social skills, responsibility, respect, leadership, communication, anger management,” he said.
Haynie spoke Friday to the TJJD Board of Directors at its regular bi-monthly meeting, outlining the program and explaining that the array of activities enables juvenile probation officers to “get to know the child,” so they can better understand “the issues behind the behavior.”
“Our JPOs build rapport with the youth and officers have a vested interest in them,” he said.
The community program echoes cultural shifts taking place today at TJJD to train Youth Development Coaches to more fully mentor the youth they oversee.
Bandera’s approach stands out from the norm and was even more of an outlier when it launched more than 20 years ago, the inspiration of then-Probation Chief Glenn Muennick.
It’s unique because it “frontloads the system” with a full-bore effort to reclaim kids who are still shallow in the system. And over the years, it has seen that intensive involvement with a mentoring adult (Bandera’s juvenile probation officers) pays off, explained Haynie, who’s been with the department for 10 years.
The participating Bandera youth have gained new social skills, improved their physical health, raised academic performance and have avoided recidivating, he said, noting that in the past decade fewer than 20 youth have gone on to residential treatment or to TJJD secure facilities.
In a key twist on the usual configuration, Banderas’ four fulltime juvenile probation officers (counting Haynie) lead most of the activities themselves or participate alongside the youth, helping the officers to better see the youth’s potential and deeper needs.
“You’re not really looking at the offense, you’re looking at the needs they have in the background, whether it’s trauma or abandonment issues or whether its drug abuse – whatever, we’re just trying to get to the root of the cause and finding out why they’re acting out,” he said.
Haynie showed slides of the youth rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, learning woodshop and cooking skills and repairing bicycles. “We’re going to see them between 200-300 hours if they’re on deferred probation…and much longer if they’ve been adjudicated.”
“That gives the JPO a lot of time to build rapport with the child and moves them toward prevention and intervention.” As the JPO learns more, he or she may assign the youth to additional counseling or seek specialized resources for the family, he said.
Other probation departments do similar community-based programs, he said, but “it’s just not to this level.”
Aside from the ever changing menu of outdoor and vocation activities, the county also contracts with providers to help the youth with employment, prep for graduation or even attend equine therapy.
Haynie admits that their approach may be easier in rural Bandera county (pop. 22,300), which handles 40 to 45 youth referrals each year.
But he also believes it can work anywhere. Large and medium size counties might have to pull out segments of kids or a target group to work with in the same way, but the programs would be similar and could be funded with the savings in averted residential placements downstream, he said.
“I do think it can scale, it just depends on how you set it up.”
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
When Superintendent Bill Parks was working with Gainesville State School recreation staff to envision a recreation center for the campus, he knew he was limited by the space and budget available.
But he wasn’t constrained by a lack of ideas.
He wanted to install games and spaces that the boys would use and truly enjoy. So he asked several young men in residence how they would outfit the recreation hall. At first, they were taken aback that the top man on campus was asking for their input. But they conferred and handed Parks a list of video games he should consider. Not all of the games made the final cut, but some, like the popular and enduring Galaga, passed muster as being suitable and age-appropriate.
“They were surprised when I told them they were going to get it, and they were even more surprised when they actually saw it,” Parks said.
The boys were doubly bowled over when they saw the full new recreation hall take shape.
“They love it. It looks like an arcade, lounge, man-cave thing” -- but for young people, said Assistant Superintendent Carla Lane.
The space, named the Main Event, opened earlier this fall. It is brightly painted and spacious. Set up in a converted dayroom of a former dorm, it features a ping pong table, an array of arcade games, an indoor basketball game, a pool table (dusted off and relocated from the gym basement), and a theater room with a projector that can be closed off for movie nights.
Recreation staff moved their offices into rooms directly across from the recreation center, making supervision easier, and set up a schedule so all the young men at Gainesville would be able to visit at least once each week. Everyone is welcome. “This gives the staff the chance to interact with the youth—and gives the kids a chance to act like kids.
The recreation staff plans to offer special movie or game nights with popcorn and snow cones to dorms in which all resident s go a month without any misbehavior incidents.
The center works as an enticement for good behavior.
“We’re dealing with teenagers,” Parks said. “They always want something going on, and if you don’t schedule and provide something for them to do, they’re going to get involved in horseplay.”
Parks knows the youth are embracing the Main Event as their own special place because they talk about it and regularly invite him to join them, usually in a game of ping pong.
“Now that they know I can play, they all want to play me,” he said. He then smiled and added, “I generally let them win so they can brag.”