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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.”
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.”