To learn the latest information related to COVID-19, read our page dedicated to the agency's response.
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)
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Burritos were a hit. As were the omelets, chicken carbonara, and pancakes made from scratch.
But perhaps the most memorable dish was the fancy grilled cheese sandwich made with apples. At first, the boys in cooking class at Willoughby Halfway House rolled their eyes and laughed at the concept, said Cassie Green-Stephens, the volunteer instructor who created a weekly cooking program for Willoughby about eight months ago.
“They were like this is insane -- and then they liked it!” she said. They made their fancy grilled cheese sandwiches with a choice of cheddar, Swiss or Havarti cheeses and ham or turkey and maybe tomatoes, but also, those apples. She encouraged them to try it. ”I think all of them liked them, even the pickiest liked it! That felt like a big triumph.”
Green-Stephens is hoping for another triumph amid a difficult time with a virtual online program she’s created for the boys.
As Texas grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, TJJD recently restricted visitors to facilities. That means cooking classes, and other volunteer-led activities, have been suspended. Green-Stephens has risen to the moment with a plan to continue the meditation that she leads at the start of every class.
She made her first virtual meditation, on an ocean theme, soon after Volunteer Coordinator Y. Diane Caldwell notified her of the new rules and she plans to create a new one each week.
The 10-minute meditations may even be especially helpful during this time of uncertainty. They will help her maintain an important connection with the boys she mentors at Willoughby, but can be used by any TJJD facility, Green-Stephens said.
A health coach, a cross between a nutritionist and a life coach, Green-Stephens gives talks to groups on healthful living. She and her husband also produce and sell an elderberry syrup. She’s both an expert and practitioner of proactive health measures, sound nutrition and daily meditation.
And the latter, she says, is integral.
“What I hope with the meditation is that it’s giving them a skill,” she said. “I teach it to them and we talk about why it’s helpful.”
Working with the halfway house teens each week – about a dozen participate in her classes – she sees their efforts to gain control of sometimes turbulent emotions. She tells them that meditation can be a tool in the toolbox to help when they’re feeling down or even angry.
”Meditation helps create a pause between your thought and your action – that’s something I really try to hammer home with them. I don’t know why they’re in the facility, but if you can train your brain to not act on impulse, that can really help.”
Like the cooking classes, the meditation helps the boys build confidence. The quiet focus grounds and centers them, and can break through to the youth who’s tense or wont to participate.
”I see kids who are just grrrrr, mad. So I ask them to sit in meditation,” she said; the group murmurs an “Om“ or “Ohm” mantra and some of the boys may even giggle, which is fine. “And then all of a sudden, they want to come and participate in the cooking.”
“There’s so much power just in the meditation.”
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
There’s nothing youth at TJJD look forward to more than a visit from family. And even before COVID-19 became a household word, virtual visitation via smartphones or digital tablets was an important way to help youth keep in touch with loved ones when parents, guardians or mentors could not visit in person.
As the agency readied plans to protect facilities from COVID19 spread, leaders knew one piece of the larger plan would be to ramp up capabilities for virtual visits. The same week Governor Greg Abbott issued the March 13 order to stop discretionary in-person visits to correctional facilities, TJJD officials purchased 25 new iPads for its family and volunteer coordinator offices. Those devices have been delivered, and another 18 devices have been ordered.
“Giving the kids more opportunities to reach out to their mentors and families is providing the youth peace of mind during this unprecedented time,” said Robin Motley, Community Relations Coordinator at Gainesville State School in North Texas. “Each youth is concerned about what is going on at home and whether or not their families are safe, and we can at least help them check in more often with loved ones.”
The iPads are being distributed proportionately to the agency’s halfway houses and five large secure campuses across the state, enabling staff to offer more online FaceTime and Google Duo sessions to all TJJD youth.
Caseworkers and family liaison and volunteer staff who regularly arrange both in-person and virtual visitation are setting new schedules to help assure that all TJJD youth are able to see and speak with relatives and even mentors via online tools.
At Evins Regional Juvenile Center in the Rio Grande Valley, Family Liaison Elva Benitez maintains an iPad that she uses to fulfill a steady stream of requests for virtual visits during normal circumstances. Her effort is currently being multiplied across the campus, with caseworkers supplied with an iPad for each dorm.
Benitez and Evins’ 13 case managers have committed to scheduling a FaceTime visit for each youth at least once every two weeks. Each session must be pre-arranged by phone with family members to assure their availability. In between virtual visits, youth also are able, as always, to speak with family members on dorm phones. In fact, while in-person visitation has been postponed, each youth has been given more opportunities to make those calls.
The setup is similar at Ron Jackson Correctional Complex in Brownwood where caseworkers, family and community relations staff are holding virtual visitation sessions for students to speak with relatives during time slots set for each weekday. Staff are additionally scheduling virtual chats three evenings each week for students to speak with their mentors.
“We are all in this battle against COVID19 together, staff, family and volunteers,” said Evins campus Community Relations Coordinator Fidel Garcia, who reported that all direct care staff are pitching in with activities as well to fill gaps created by the necessary temporary suspension of visitors, volunteer-led events and outings.
Teachers and education staff are part of the effort too, Garcia said. They’ve been playing board games, overseeing group exercises and supervising other in-house activities during an extended Spring Break at TJJD schools.
Meanwhile, TJJD mentors serving a variety of TJJD campuses are brainstorming creative ways to stay in touch with youth they’d otherwise see during on-site gatherings.
At Evins, the mentors have decided to go full bore old school and have begun writing letters to youth, Garcia said.
They’ll be dropping those in the mail, because, well, there’s actually not an app for that.