Carlos thrived in art class, and favored watercolor, creating several bright, happy works such as this one.
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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.”
By Y. Denise Caldwell, Volunteer Services Coordinator - Fort Worth
TJJD volunteer Catherine Stephens, aka “Ms. Cassie”, held her first “Soulful Cooking” class at Willoughby House in June. Six months later, students look forward to her classes, and not just for the food.
The students say the cooking class is about more than just cooking and eating, it is about learning a variety of things, such as the meditation before and after the class that helps the youth learn techniques to regulate their moods.
“I like the meditation,” said M.L.. “I use it to calm down and to help get to sleep at night.”
“The deep breaths keep me from getting too angry,” said T.W..
“I’ve seen their confidence grow along with their cooking skills,” Stephens said proudly. “They read the recipes, they are way more confident in their techniques, like measuring and sautéing and using the hand mixer. Their cooking skills have really improved.”
The class is open to all of the youth at Willoughby House. Stephens has taught sessions, introducing the students to new and various dishes. She also teaches grocery shopping and budgeting, using coupons and grocery lists.
More than 20 students have taken at least one class, learning how to shop for and prepare delicious and nutritious meals.
Recently, four students, T.W., I.M., M. B. and M.L., cooked “breakfast for dinner” - omelets, pancakes and bacon.
The class started with a guided meditation, which captivated the boys. They practiced relaxed breathing, eyes closed, while sitting and lying down in a comfortable position. Ms. Cassie had them focus on their breathing and then picture a light and the planets and the universe, and then coming back to the light.
They unpacked the “prep work,” all of the pre-cut, chopped or cooked ingredients that Stepehens brings, and all the food for the project: two dozen eggs, a pack of bacon, a bag of flour, a pint of buttermilk, stick of butter, onions, chives (from her herb garden), sweet red peppers, blocks of cheddar and pepper jack cheese, sugar, syrup, honey, and peanut butter for the pancakes.
T.W. read the recipe aloud and the rest followed along.
Stephens taught them to crack eggs like a professional, one handed and two handed; measure wet and dry ingredients separately and to use a whisk and a hand mixer and other kitchen moves.
They tested the frying pan to make sure it was hot enough, with drops of water that had to sizzle. They lined a cookie sheet with foil so they could put the bacon in the oven, a first for them as they were used to frying the bacon.
“That was good,” said I.M. “You didn’t get popped with grease.”
The homemade pancakes were various sizes and shapes, even a Texas shaped one. The omelets were new to some.
“I knew about scrambled eggs,” said M.L. “But I never had an omelet. It was kind of strange but tasted good.”
Over recent months, the Willoughby boys have made several dishes, with students’ favorites being Philly cheesesteaks, fried chicken, orange chicken, Whattaburger-style honey BBQ chicken strips, chocolate cheesecake, chocolate chip cookies and of course, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, sunny-side-up eggs and omelets.
The plan is to create a recipe book that they can share with others and take home.
Some of the boys are already thinking about how they can use their new skills after they leave Willoughby.
“It’ll be great when I get a girlfriend and can cook for her,” said I.M.
“Girls like it when you cook for them and I like learning how to cook new dishes.”
Carlos’ eyes shine as he explains that art has been a lifesaver during his stay at TJJD.
“I live, eat and breathe art. It’s something I cannot stop doing. It helps me with everything – calming down, expressing my feelings, reminding me of home,” he says, flipping through a sketchbook filled with anime figures and landscapes.
Carlos (a pseudonym) enjoyed art as a child, but didn’t think he had much talent until he resumed drawing and painting while at Lone Star High School North at the Gainesville State School.
There, art teacher LaVerne Harrison, seeing his talent, challenged Carlos to “show me your best effort.”
The result: A watercolor of "The Hundred Acre Wood," the fictional land of Winnie the Pooh, which is now featured on the Texas Juvenile Justice Department website.
In fact, student artists like Carlos at campuses all across the agency have contributed their artwork to bring the website to life.
Their colorful paintings and drawings are the only artwork used to illustrate the site, helping to reinforce the idea that TJJD is an agency focused on youth.
As for Carlos, he has fond memories of the Pooh stories his parents read to him as a small boy. Those memories and his aspirations for the future infuse his art works, which feature bright images of the beach and forests and figures from anime fantasy worlds. Unlike many youth who enter the juvenile justice system, Carlos comes from an intact, attentive family and during his time at TJJD he yearned to return to the comfort of home, where his younger siblings awaited. He wanted to put this detour in his life firmly behind him.
Carlos thrived in art class, and favored watercolor, creating several bright, happy works such as this one.
His efforts to change became apparent while he was in high school at the Gainesville campus, where art became his vehicle for change.
“He was focused on every project he worked on. He even did pictures for another teacher. He also did a mural for the football team in our weight room. He would come to class to do his daily assignment and then rush off to the gym to draw and paint,” Harrison recalled. “Those were happy days for him.”
Harrison’s support and the privilege to paint those murals at Gainesville unleashed Carlos’ drive. In class, he tried acrylics, pencil and watercolor, finding the latter to be his medium of choice.
Not every student arrives in class wanting to work, or even believing they can create any worthy art, says Harrison. But often, even those who profess not to care can be coaxed into trying. Soon they are doodling away in a sketch pad or fiddling with a piece of clay.
“Art can be very soothing,” she says. Soon, she’ll look up, and the latest reluctant recruit is bringing her a drawing or 3-D object, offering it for assessment and a bit surprised that it came out.
“It gives them a sense of pride. They can say, ‘That’s mine, I did that!’ We all like recognition for things we do, big or small. Like somebody says, ‘Wow, that’s good!’ And they like it.”
Harrison should know. She’s taught at the Gainesville State School for 25 years, teaching art and team leadership. ”It has been fun and I’ve felt I made a difference,” she says. “God led me here and I’m going to stay until he tells me to move.”
Tami Sanders also has found her calling as an art teacher for TJJD, where she forged a special bond with students during three years teaching at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility.
A former foster child and teen mom, Sanders said she could relate to the youth who’ve faced difficult circumstances growing up. They knew she didn’t see their situation as a hypothetical and that gave her voice weight.
“I don’t lecture them, but I can talk to them,” she said. Sometimes a youth would tell her that they robbed or stole because they needed Jordan shoes or some other consumer item of the moment. And that’s her opening. “I tell them . . . Were shoes worth your freedom? Is this the kind of life you want?”
Art students at the McLennan County facility took over the surfaces of Sanders area, painting lively murals.
Sanders also shared her own story of having turned her life around, joining the Navy, using the GI Bill to get a college degree, becoming a teacher and raising her daughter, who’s now a college graduate as well.
In the classroom, she likes to offer the youth many choices, a salvo in a setting that’s highly structured by necessity. “I don’t want to be that teacher that I didn’t like growing up, who said, ‘We’re all going to paint fruit today’.” Some students may not want to paint fruit, says Sanders, who previously worked as a commercial artist and a public school art teacher in Tomball, Texas.
So instead of dictating one subject, she offers the class broad themes to think about. The day we spoke, the youth were working on the concept of “emphasis.” Some students were noodling on that theme with pencils, others with paint, still others with papier-mâché.
As the creativity flowed over the years, Sanders’ room morphed into a colorful, private art gallery, with student murals of dragons and fishes on the walls and collections of art objects arrayed on shelves.
“Art saved my life, and if it can help them get through their time here, that’s great.”
A few weeks before he returned home, Carlos reflected over his early work with Ms. Harrison, including his first acrylic painting, a portrait of two cuddly anime figures that’s surprisingly good and well- proportioned for a first effort. Another sketch, in stark black, white and red, features a different anime character, Naruto.
Naruto is crying red tears.
Like his artwork Carlos is a complex blend of light and dark. Direct and forthright, he flashes a quick smile, direct gaze and positive demeanor that will serve him well as he ventures onward.
Harrison saw Carlos’ first work, an anime in acrylic, as evidence of his natural talent.
But his smile wavers as he scans the dayroom of the halfway house, his temporary residence, with its lockers, guard desk and other reminders of his missteps. He says he knows he must stay away from negative influences and stick to his work and education plans when he’s back home.
At TJJD, he earned his graduate equivalency degree and gained work experience at a McDonalds near the halfway house. He is eager to put his learnings to work, save for college, and get on with his future, including his art.
“I really do want to pursue something in graphic arts,” he muses. “I didn’t think of it as a career. . . “
But maybe; maybe, he says, it could be.
By Denise Caldwell, Community Resource Coordinator – Fort Worth
Who knows better than mom, right? That was the thinking behind a new mentoring group for the parents of juvenile justice-involved youth in the DFW area.
The new group, formed this summer, brings together volunteer mothers from Gateway Church in Southlake with the mothers (and dads are welcome too) of youth on TJJD parole or at halfway houses in TJJD’s Fort Worth Parole District.
It is called M2M or MOM2MOM and its goal is to help strengthen community connections and support the entire family as a young person moves through the system. DFW family members with youth at Gainesville State School, McFadden Ranch or Willoughby halfway houses or on parole are welcome to join.
The founding group of volunteers held their first gathering on June 1, treating interested family members to a brunch and meet and greet at the church. The volunteers told the family members that they wanted to support them as they navigated the TJJD system and helped their youth find success.
The meeting resonated with both volunteers and participants.
“I came all the way from Corsicana because I need this”
“I came all the way from Corsicana because I need this,” said Maggie O., the mother of a youth at Gainesville State School. “It’s hard having a son in TJJD and not knowing what’s going on. He calls me and tells me things, like he said he thought they were moving him but he wasn’t sure, and then they moved him. And I didn’t know where he was at first.
“It’s better though, he’s closer now,” she said, adding that she was so grateful for the caring volunteers.
Another TJJD Mom, Abigail G., said she’s looking forward to her son’s release.
“I already told him, you’re doing real good in TJJD now make sure you do good when you get out!”
For her, just having someone to talk to about the situation was helpful. “I raised all my kids right and they just made their own decisions. Sometimes they were bad decisions but they know they had consequences,” she said. “If my son gets out and doesn’t do right, I will call the police on him, I don’t care, I know some mothers don’t want to do that, but I will.”
Mom2Mom’s is having a big impact on volunteers, as well.
Naom Sam-Kpakrai of Gateway was inspired to start a prayer chain to pray for the moms.
“It just touched my heart, we’re all moms and we all want the best for our children… and sometimes it’s hard when that doesn’t or isn’t happening,” she said.
The church volunteers’ initial idea had been to set up a mentoring group for the young women at TJJD. But they realized the impracticality of that after learning the girls were all housed at the Ron Jackson facility, two hours away in Brownwood. Brainstorming with TJJD parole staff, the volunteers landed on the new idea of helping parents.
The shift toward mentoring mothers has revealed a different, but important need.
“Being able to mentor and support other moms is blessing – for them and for us,” said Emma Rowe, the lead for the Gateway Prison Ministry and the TJJD Lead at McFadden and Willoughby House.
Sue Proctor, who doesn’t attend Gateway but is a McFadden mentor and pen pal agrees.
“As mothers, as people, we do our best but when your best isn’t good enough, what do you do?” she asked. “I learned to pray, because I wasn’t always the person I am now.”
The women worked together at their first meeting to define the purpose and mission of the group and to offer comfort and encouragement to each other.
The Gateway women offered prayer, a listening ear and information on resources that can help families cope, both with their child’s absence from home and their ultimate return home.
The volunteer mentors, mothers themselves, shared stories of similar struggles and hardship, letting the TJJD moms know that they were not alone.
The TJJD mothers and family members shared their specific challenges. One mother spoke about her concern when her son was moved to another facility unexpectedly and another talked about her child’s discipline problems.
Gateway Church provided door provided door prizes, as well as the brunch, for the family members attending. The next Mom2Mom gathering will be this fall, when the group is planning a picnic. The volunteers also are discussing how to improve their outreach, possibly with a door-to-door mentoring program.
Horticulture teacher Timothy Hinds shows a youth how to safety start the garden tiller at they prepare to work on the compacted sand of the volleyball court.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
The boys in Timothy Hinds’ horticulture class are almost always on a mission. They assess soil and mix compost. They design garden plots. They plant. They weed. They harvest.
And oh yes! They sample said harvest. Tasty carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers and watermelon are key to the popularity of this vocational course at Lone Star High School South at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg.
The kale, meh, not so much.
But overall the tasting forays to the raised beds outside the classroom are happy moments and so are the days like this one when the youth get to operate the machinery.
Under a blazing morning sun, the boys are eagerly trying their hands at starting and maneuvering a roaring motorized tiller. This mission: To ready the volleyball sand court for play, and in the process, master the boisterous tiller.
While some of the teens watch from the shade of a nearby tree, others push the machine across the compacted sand pit, fluffing the soil in neat rows. By the time everyone has taken a turn helming the machine, half of the large playing area has been de-compacted; a solid morning’s work, before the boys rinse off, get a snack and head to their next class.
But teacher Timothy Hinds had noticed something more.
During the exercise, one of the students had stepped in to assist a new student with the tiller, helping teach the process.
“The best thing that happens is when they begin to help each other,” Hinds said. ” I couldn’t ask for much more than for these guys to help each other out and get along.”
TJJD youth are not always in a place, mentally and emotionally, where they can take such social steps forward, explained Hinds, who’s been teaching for 28 years, the last six at Evins.
Because the youth typically come from difficult backgrounds and experienced early traumas, they need space, patience and understanding before they can open up themselves and then reach out to work productively with their classmates.
“You have to be able to work with people, or you’re not going to work,” says Hinds, who switched from teaching math and social studies to horticulture four years ago.
“It’s easy when they’re already friends….but when you get people working together who are from different dorms and maybe they had even been in different gangs -- that’s a big accomplishment.”
Hinds says the youth greatly enjoy the hands on experience of working with garden equipment, particularly the powerful tiller.
Hinds counts another accomplishment that’s not always immediately obvious, and that’s the achievement of normalcy. The boys tell him they “feel normal” when working in the garden or tending the landscaping around Evins’ offices. They forget their troubles and their transgressions.
Over the years, many students have told Hinds that working in the edible gardens in particular reminds them of when they helped their grandmother or another relative or friend in their garden.
Hinds believes these touchstone moments help the youth envision a brighter future, and connect the dots between their learnings today and possible vocations later.
Some of the youth will pursue gardening or landscaping as a career, or as a bridge, while they continue their studies or build work experience. But even those who don’t may still use their horticulture learnings in home gardens.
Hinds teaches the class with that in mind, folding in life lessons and nuggets about earth science, chemistry (a good growing mix needs nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, for starters) and math.
“I work a little math in there every now and then: What’s the volume of the materials needed? What’s the cost?” he says.
Hinds, who spent part of his youth helping a grandfather on a farm, imparts garden wisdom he’s picked up over decades and also follows a curriculum of the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, which awards an “endorsement” to the students who complete the program.
In the garden, Hinds eschews synthetic chemicals and pesticides, because these can be dangerous for kids to work around and are difficult to store safely. So he winds up teaching the latest best organic practices, which he believes produce the best tasting fruits and vegetables anyway, even though this requires sharing plants, to an extent, with persistent pests.
The boys also have grown flowers, which go over big as gifts, but growing edibles goes on year-round at Evins, with the exception of the brutal hot middle of the summer. This equips the youth for jobs in nurseries, greenhouses and other enterprises. Such jobs can be hard and require “weather hardy” workers, but they’re almost always available, Hinds said.
The youth grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, including several tomato plants that yield nibbles.
The same is true for landscaping work. Youth can nearly always find a job with a lawn mowing crew, and can even open their own business, making decent money. Others know someone who’s already followed this career path and can do the math -- $30 to $50 per lawn, multiplied by several lawns in a day multiplied by five days a week. “The kids think about that, and they know you can make a living at it,” Hinds says. One student in the class, cooled down after wrestling with the tiller, muses that he loves working outside, and finds that the smells of the earth and cut grass are calming.
As class proceeds through multiple growing seasons, an unspoken overarching lesson: That time and effort create tangible results.
“Right now, they’re eating some watermelons we grew. They enjoy it. They say, ‘We grew this.’ I say, ‘Yes, you did!’ So it’s a sense of accomplishment,” Hinds explains.
All right, this hasn’t happened with the kale. It was rejected it during an experimental appearance last year by everyone except two boys. Spinach, bell peppers, carrots and tomatoes fare better, Hinds says, though some boys tell him they won’t eat the “store bought” versions.
It is also true that sometimes a portion of the garden’s bounty ends up the target of a prank. Watermelons and cherry tomatoes have gone MIA.
These small heists are not the work of students in the horticulture class, Hinds believes, but are masterminded by other students. Sometimes, they provide memorable teachable moments.
Once students who’d dramatically demolished a watermelon confronted Hinds with the news. As they smirked about destroying the horticulture’s class treat, Hinds nudged them toward a realization.
“I told them, you know, my watermelon’s home in the refrigerator. ‘Whose watermelon did you destroy?’
“Oh, yeah. It took them a while, but…they understood.”
Youth in the class prep and weed the garden’s raised bed of carrots, which they also get to sample.
These are the valuable lessons that aren’t in the horticulture book, but follow naturally as Hinds coaxes out the best behavior from Evins youth even as the youth team up to conjure the best edibles from the soil.
And while Evins’ is certainly not the only school garden to deal with gremlins, it does see a range of issues, from root rot in the raised beds to occasional raised tempers and recalcitrance among the boys in the class.
Hinds offers incentives for good behavior, such as playing music during workbook exercises, and also keeps alert to the boys’ moods and special needs. He lends an ear when they need to talk or lets them sit out if they’re having a difficult day, following the guidelines of the trauma informed approach that is integral to the Texas Model.
“It happens,” he says without rancor. “How we deal with each other when we’re having bad days, that’s kind of an important life skill.
At the same time, certain basic rules must be followed. Hinds relays how a student in the class recently helped two new youth to agree to sit in their desks because it would make the class more fun for everyone (that is, the music could be played). Later, the campus coach for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), pulled the helpful student aside to reward him for good behavior.
“You’re going to get a reward for good behavior (at Evins), but we’re not going to focus on all the other stuff,” Hinds said.