By Fidel Garcia, Community Volunteer Coordinator, Evins Regional Juvenile Center
Last month, the Volunteer Council serving the Evins campus, in Edinburg, sponsored an Easter family event and helped a family that was struggling financially so that they could attend the event and visit their young loved one.
The Council generously provided the family a gas card for $207, enabling them to drive some 500 miles to Evins Regional Juvenile Center.
“The family was very appreciative when she (the mom) called,” said Crystella Garza, who heads up Family Services at Evins.
The mother told Garza that when she found out about the donation she was overwhelmed and “moved to tears and had to rush to the bathroom to hide my tears of gratitude."
“It was a real financial struggle and miracle that we were all able to go on Saturday,” she told Garza. “Eight hours one way, two cars, five people! We had thought that we wouldn't be able to go. Then Tuesday before last, you kindly called to confirm that I was coming.”
Helping the families and youth in these practical ways has been the core mission of the nonprofit community volunteer councils that serve TJJD’s secure facilities and halfway houses. These groups have been dedicated for decades to helping TJJD/TYC youth with a variety of assistance and programs they develop and deliver, with the approval of the facility leadership.
At Evins Regional Juvenile Center, in the Rio Grande Valley, helping with gas cards and motel bills for families has been a focus of their good works. Not that it’s all the council does, not by a long shot.
Leonel Rodriguez, who’s been volunteering at ERJC for 32 years (you read that right), has helped with a variety of programs in which community members reach out. He works within the South Texas Youth Council (formerly Evins Volunteer Council), one of the most active community groups supporting Evins youth.
“I have always been community oriented and anything I can do to strengthen youth and family has always been my passion," Rodriguez said. "Also, all the wonderful volunteer partners that I have been able to work with throughout the years have kept me going. How can I not?”
Rodriguez chuckles now as he recalls that back in 1991, when then-Volunteer Coordinator Jane Parker asked him to help out, she told him, “Don’t worry it will only be for one year.” Or 32.
Over the years the Council has found a multitude of ways to pitch in. Members raised funds to start Evins’ horticulture program, which has sent many youth into the world with valuable work experiences. They also supported meals for youth and families for the one-time softball Diamond Rattlesnake team.
The Council regularly sponsors graduation receptions for families, students and staff to celebrate the youth receiving their GEDs or high school diplomas and they go into high gear at the holidays, providing Thanksgiving dinners for youth and families featuring a full meal of turkey with the trimmings.
At Christmas, the Council donates enough cash (last year it was more than $2,500) to put some $20 or so on every youth's phone card, allowing the young men to make additional phone calls home beyond their usual allotment.
And they don't forget New Year's Day, when the Council presents each youth with a goody bag with cookies, candy, chips, and a note of encouragement.
Outside of holidays, volunteers serve as role models and mentors, encouraging the youth to think positively and complete their programs so they can go home as early as possible. They check up on them and let them know someone in the community cares about them..
One thing that has remained steady over the years is the eager pool of volunteers that has engaged juveniles at the facility. These volunteers come from all walks of life and sectors of the community. They’ve undergone background checks and trained to work with the youth population.
At Evins, the volunteer program has revived after a couple years of restrained activities caused by COVID. But even during that time, with quarantines and limits on visitors, the volunteers found ways to keep up the connections, financially sponsoring various activities from behind the scenes. Some wrote letters of encouragement.
Rodriguez, an owner agent with State Farm Insurance in McAllen, joined just eight months after the Council incorporated in 1990. He’s held numerous positions on the board and has been nominated several times at the local and state level for various awards for his community involvement.
Many times, volunteer groups will work cooperatively and in conjunction with the Council. One such group, the Catholic Dioceses of Brownsville, has provided religious programing for Catholic youth through Bible studies, Sacrament classes, baptism, and weekend retreats.
However, when it comes to providing support for the youth, they treat all youth the same regardless of their religious affiliation.
At the Thanksgiving holiday, the Catholic Diocese volunteers complemented the Council’s turkey plate with drinks, pies and most importantly the manpower to serve and hand deliver each plate to the youth.
Other groups that have been outstanding supporters include members of the Apostolado de La Cruz and Our Lady of Sorrows which are parishes of the Catholic Diocese. Many of the members in this group belong to other civic organizations and spread the word out quickly when a need is identified for the youth at Evins. Through their efforts, weekend retreats have been organized and manpower recruited when needed.
These groups will network with the Council to help families to visit their loved ones. Usually the Council will provide a gift card for the round trip gas and they will step in and provide a one night stay for the family at a local hotel.
“When you are traveling for hours to get to Evins to visit their son we want to make sure that for those that can’t afford it we provide a comfortable place and snacks for them to rest and enjoy after a ten hour drive,” said Ignacio Estorga, a chaplain volunteer and Council member.
Also, during each Family Day they provide funding for a full meal and game prizes for a variety of games, which caseworkers and staff organize for the youth and visiting family members.
And when they hear from staff organizing Family Days that someone needs help getting there, they go into action -- as they did last month. Helping bring families together is something they strongly support, Rodriguez said.
“The family unit has been the glue that holds the family together,” he said, “and hopefully [is] the deterrent to the youth from continuing down the wrong road.”
(Photos: A family prays at a Thanksgiving dinner; volunteers pose at the Evins' entrance; a family celebrates together during an Easter egg hunt.)