By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
The minute Ruben Trevino picks up the phone, we are fast into a discussion about a mutually beneficial relationship with a community group that is helping the youth at Tamayo Halfway House.
It’s mid-June, the Texas heat is pressing hard on the Rio Grande Valley and Trevino has arranged for the young men at Tamayo who perform community service at the Elks Lodge in Harlingen to get privileges to the lodge pool. They’ll be taking a dip that morning.
“During the day there’s not so much going on (at the lodge), so the boys can go in the morning. That way the pool is ours, unless there are a lot of guests, then we excuse ourselves and move on,” Trevino explained.
This pact with the Elks is no surprise. This is Trevino’s wheelhouse. He’s the man with the community connections. Over his 26 years with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, most of them at Tamayo House in Harlingen, he has worked out dozens of handshake deals that take the youth on valuable community service outings. They’ve have packed goods for the local food pantry, set up several 5K benefit races, cleaned up local parks and helped at charity dinners. Once upon a time, a corps of Tamayo teens hefted diapers and water bottles into trucks bound for Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
Trevino simply epitomizes “service to others,” said Tamayo Supt. Eduardo Garza. When he’s not helping youths he assists staff with finding mechanics or medical services.
Garza says the staff and students at Tamayo house have a nickname for him: “The Mayor of Harlingen.”
As Tamayo’s Human Services Specialist, Trevino also prepares the youth for going back home by teaching them life skills, everything from how to cook a tender brisket to managing one’s bank account. Every week he walks the youth through two of a set of 10 life skills modules. And whenever needed, he helps the teens put those lessons into play – overseeing as they fill out college financial aid forms or driving them to get their state IDs or apply for an apartment.
Trevino, though, is quick to quash any notion that he’s something special. He attributes the smooth operations at Tamayo to strong teamwork by dedicated JCOs and staff at the Harlingen halfway house.
Tamayo House boasts an impressive tenured staff. Ten Tamayo employees have been with TJJD for more than 15 years, representing 336 years of experience working with justice-involved youth. These staffers also train youth in skills and oversee countless teaching moments.
The stories they could tell. Trevino’s personal one includes a struggle as a young adult to help his first-born son overcome special needs and recover from several surgeries to repair a devastating congenital medical condition. That boy is now a healthy 31-year-old who coaches and teaches in a small Texas town. He and his younger brother, a police investigator, both graduated from UT San Antonio, which made their parents, Ruben and Soyla, super proud.
Those early challenges as a young dad led Ruben Trevino to make a big pivot. He left a job at H-E-B to find what turned out to be a fulfilling career with TJJD.
It wasn’t love at first sight when he joined the Evins campus in 1997 as a recreation specialist. There were difficult days as he adjusted to working in corrections. But after he and other employees started the Diamondbacks baseball team for the youth at Evins, he settled into a groove. The team competed in the community in Edinburg and Trevino, who’d already clocked years as a coach, saw how it pumped up the Evins boys’ self-esteem.
“I felt it was my calling and believe it or not I spoke to my pastor. I said, ‘Father Mack, what do you see me doing?’ He said, ‘Ruben, this is what I see you doing’.”
Inspired, Trevino stayed on and joined Tamayo House in 1999 to take the human services job (then with a different title), so he could continue community-related work.
Shepherding youth is now in his blood. Our conversation, intended to be about him, keeps veering back to the day’s activities for the youth.
“Later this evening we’re taking them to the park, and they’ll play basketball and flag football and volleyball, and we do dodgeball,” he says. “But I always remind them, the staff, to stop every 15 minutes and get a nice cool drink of water, to hydrate themselves out there.”
Hydration is on Trevino’s mind because the boys are out a lot -- performing collectively an average of more than 400 hours of community service in a month -- and will be out again the next day, filling food bags at the Harlingen Food Pantry.
At the pantry he sees how they blossom under the encouragement of the adult volunteers.
“They feel that pride,” he says. “‘I did something for someone today.’”
Seeing that internal shift in the youth is what brings Trevino to work every day and why at 58 he has no plans to retire, although he does greatly enjoy his days off, immersed in family activities. He and his wife, married for 34 years, love to go dancing, he says, and they’ve got two grandbabies on which to dote.
Back at work, Tamayo offers him a place where he can make a difference. The work is not bump free. There are recalcitrant youth and challenging moments. But he believes the team effort by experienced staff well-versed in Texas Model and TBRI (Trust-based Relational Intervention) techniques, creates an environment that’s truly rehabilitative.
“It’s a good, good thing that a lot of our members are doing here at TJJD,” he says. “From Shandra Carter on down to the staff here. I’ve had several visitors come by and they can just feel the safety and security.”
(Photos: Top, Ruben Trevino; Tamayo HWH youth at the pool; Ruben, center, with his sons, daughters-in-law, wife and first grandchild.)