At this time, TJJD will not accept transfers from county facilities where staff or youth have tested positive for COVID-19. That decision currently affects Dallas, Harris, and Bowie counties.

Photo: Mentor and mentee bond over a game of cards
A young volunteer mentor plays cards with an Evins’ youth, while they get to know each other.

By Fidel Garcia, Community Resource Coordinator – Evins Regional Juvenile Center

Edinburg, TEXAS -- It takes a special type of person to listen to someone’s problems -- and Ernestina Barreiro is that person.

Barreiro has been volunteering at Evins Regional Juvenile Center since 2007 as a member of the Catholic Dioceses of Brownsville. Initially, she signed up to help youth with their religious studies. During one of the classes, she noticed a young man who was having trouble speaking English. In 2008, Barreiro asked that she be allowed to work with that youth.

She wanted to ensure he learned to read, write and communicate in English and to help reinforce the range of topics he needed to study at campus high school, Lone Star High School South.

The mentorship worked so well that by the time he left the facility the youth had mastered the required academics and earned his GED.

“Mentoring is a positive program because it helps us diffuse anger and is an outlet for us, as it takes us out of our usual daily routine.”

-- Youth at Evins Regional Juvenile Center

Photo: Mentors and mentees bond over a game of cards
Ernestina Barreiro and another regular mentor Ignacio Estorga speak with a youth at a weekly mentoring session.

Before the youth left, Barreiro made sure he had money for food and snacks for the trip home. She bought him a $25 gift card and coordinated with other volunteers from her parish to provide him with a backpack filled with new clothing and hygiene products.

Barreiro went on to mentor many more youths. Her current assigned mentee, J.G., is a determinant sentenced offender, meaning a judge has given him a specific amount of time to serve and he may have to complete that time at an adult facility. The judge, however, could review his case and place him on parole sometime before he turns 19 and must transfer out of TJJD.

In other words, J.G., age 18, has a strong incentive to try to succeed while at Evins. But he faces challenges. His family has been unable to visit because of immigration and financial issues.

“I look forward to my mentor’s weekly visits because she is the only one that comes to visit with me during the last two years. Mrs. Barreiro is always helping me out to do the right thing and pushing me to study,” he said. 

“At first, I did not feel like working towards getting my GED, but she kept insisting that I do and she helped me a lot. She is always checking up on me to make sure I make the right choices,” J.G. said.

Barreiro reports that she has seen a big improvement in his attitude over the two years of their partnership. Recently, he marked many milestones, she said. He turned 18; he received his GED and he was baptized. Barreiro brought him a piece of cake and soda to celebrate his birthday and stood in as a godparent for his baptism.

“The mentoring program is challenging and rewarding,” Barreiro said. “I am always encouraging the students to stay out of trouble, out of security and I can really see that they try and that they improve their behavior every time we visit. 

“The more we visit, the more calm the youth looks and is really looking forward to the day they get to go home.”

The big reward for Barreiro and other mentors is the youth have made it through the TJJD program and are going home with a positive outlook, better equipped to sort matters out when confronted with negative situations.

“Mentoring is a good program because it helps us diffuse anger and is an outlet for us, as it takes us out of our usual daily routine,” said J.M., another youth, whose mentor is Ray Trevino.

For many youth, family visitations are not frequent, for a variety of reasons. But through mentoring or other volunteer activities, most of the young men at Evins have some type of interaction with community volunteers at least once a month.

Photo: Mentors and mentees bond over a game of cards
Barreiro often checks in with youth on their studies, and tries to help in any way they need.

In addition, youth are able to visit with family members through regularly scheduled webcam visits scheduled by the Family Services Department at Evins.

Sadly, Evins has a list of about 25 youth who’ve never received a family visit.

The volunteer program at Evins works with this list and caseworkers’ referrals to pair these youth with a volunteer mentor or an activity. The goal is get as many youth as possible connected with community volunteers, through mentoring, concerts, retreats, tutoring or religious programing.

Volunteers also help bring families for a visit by providing gas cards and assistance for hotel rooms purchased with the proceeds of ongoing fundraisers.

Meanwhile, Barreiro and other mentors continue to provide weekly companionship to the youth and an extra set of hands at campus activities and events.

“The end goal is make sure that the student is able to succeed while at Evins and beyond and to make sure that they know that they are responsible for their actions and their futures,” she said