Tina Saenz discovered her life's work at Evins Regional Juvenile Center
By Fidel Garcia, Volunteer Resource Coordinator, Evins Regional Juvenile Center
Looking back and reminiscing over 35 years of life is quite a task, let alone working those 35 years and more within two state agencies. Tina Saenz, Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, accomplished this and is still going strong. She has worked at TJJD/TYC for 33 years.
Saenz began working as a clerk with the Rio Grande State Center in Harlingen, Texas back in 1986, but she wasn’t enjoying her duties there.
“I had a friend who worked at Tamayo House and she advised me of an opening for a clerk with TYC, so I applied. I got the job and started on May 5, 1989. In June, I found out that Tamayo House would be closing, and a halfway house would be built in Houston. Staff were transferred over to Evins and I was placed as the first clerk for the education department. We had one clerk and two teachers,” Saenz said. (Tamayo House later reopened and remains open today.)
After a short stint at Evins, she was transferred to Beto House in McAllen, also a part of TYC back then. During a restraint with a youth she was injured, and after being medically cleared by her doctor, she returned to work and was re-assigned to Evins. This time, she was a Youth Activities Supervisor (YAS), then a Juvenile Correctional Officer (JCO), and then a clerk for case management and finally, moved to her current role as an Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent. Today, that Superintendent is Eduardo Garza.
She also works closely with Asst. Supt. Emmanuel Ortiz, who said Saenz has shown her commitment throughout the years, as she's been appointed to different positions.
"Her dedication is unparalleled," he said. "Ms. Tina, we are lucky to have you."
What started as a referral from a friend became a rewarding lifetime passion
When Ms. Saenz first walked onto the Evins campus, there was no landscaping yet. The new buildings were in the final stages of construction and being turned over to the state. In August of 1990 the first group of youth arrived and were housed in what is now called Dorm One.
She recalls with a laugh that one time when a staff member had radioed in that youth were running around the café building, only to find out that it was staff running around the building chasing each other. The youth were inside the building, laughing and watching through the tall windows.
That’s a memory from the very early days at Evins. As the years rolled by, there were many more and for Ms. Saenz that’s been part of the charm of working at Evins and being a part of helping young people turn their lives around.
“Many times, I have been at Barnes & Noble, HEB or other places and I hear my name called out. Former residents come up to me and ask me if I am still at Evins, because they were here at one time before and remember me and other employees.”
We may not always agree on things, but we are there for each other
“To be honest, these 35 years have gone by so fast. I think back to where we started and where we are now. As a campus we have gone through so much, but when times are hard, staff always come together. We may not always agree on things, but we are there for each other when needed,” she said.
The teamwork and camaraderie are the greatest strength of the campus, she said.
Working at TJJD is not for everyone, she noted, and her words of advice for new staff are this: “This is a very difficult job, but it does have its rewards. You may not think so, but when you see these youths out in the community, and they are productive citizens, you realize that they were listening to us,” she said.
“Many times, they will thank you for being there for them and not giving up as many (others) out there in their lives have.”
Thirty-five years sounds like a long time, but for Ms. Saenz who is still employed at Evins, it seems like it was just yesterday.
And while she enjoys her work, she also values her free time. She enjoys watching classical and animated movies and reading romance novels.
She knows that one day she will retire, as many other have with whom she’s been privileged to work. But for now, her work, her passion, continues and she keeps building beautiful memories.
Photo: Tina Saenz and Asst. Superintendent Emmanuel Ortiz
Dell Computer donation to TJJD brought electronic and human connections
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Dell Computer Corp. reached out to help youth at TJJD this summer, making a generous donation of 40 laptop computers, but contributing an even bigger, especially precious resource -- the time and energy of dozens of college interns.
These interns put their minds together to come up with fun life skill programs that they presented as webcasts to youth at TJJD halfway houses -- Ayres, in San Antonio; Tamayo, in Harlingen; Willoughby, in Fort Worth; Schaeffer, in El Paso, and Karyn’s House, in Montgomery County.
Their creativity was endless. Want to know how to build a “personal brand,” take better care of your skin, prepare for a hiking trip, practice beginning yoga poses or make a granola bar? The interns had an interactive workshop that explained how.
All told, the Dell group of more than 100 college interns came up with 48 life skills/self-improvement modules or programs that they either provided to TJJD youth on a digital format or livestreamed to the youth at their halfway houses.
Presenters shared their special skills and knowledge, but also talked about their hardships and how they overcame disabilities, said Siddhesh Dabholkar, a digital strategy advisor at Dell and the primary organizer of the workshop program along with co-coordinator Lily Sinclair.
They brought the whole project together by enlisting young adults working at Dell who belong to the community service group, Dell Grads Give (DGG). The DGG members coordinated and advised the Dell interns, making sure all the program topics were relevant and appropriate.
The Dell interns, meanwhile, devoted a bit of time each week to the community service project. In July, they presented several of the workshops to TJJD youth who had signed up for the sessions.
“It really got people talking and sharing, and that means the world to me,” said Dabholkar.
The youth on both sides of the screen related to each other, Dabholkar said, and that created special moments. He said he was struck by how open the interns were, sharing personal inspirational stories that resonated with the youth at TJJD.
The TJJD teens could relate to the young presenters, just a few years older than themselves, and the Dell interns got to experience something “really meaningful that went beyond the scope of their daily work at Dell,” he said. Dabholkar and Sinclair became so involved, they each went through the training to become TJJD volunteers.
TJJD hopes to continue the collaboration, said Patty Garza, Community Resource and Family Coordinator for Ayres House and South District Parole.
Garza and her volunteer coordinator counterparts at Willoughby and Karyn’s House, Denise Caldwell and Jennie Williams, had laid the foundation for the program, proposing the workshops to the Dell employees during discussions about how Dell could help support TJJD youth.
“They had the idea for the workshops,” Dabholkar said. “So we took that idea and we knew there’d be interns coming in and we thought, ‘what a good way for them to work’. They could create the workshops.”
The project checked several boxes for TJJD – it connected the youth with community helpers, provided worthwhile training and allowed them to complete trainings they could include on their resumes, Garza said.
“It was a wonderful project and we’re so grateful to Sid. He was awesome,” Garza said.
“The interns were amazing,” Caldwell said. “They were young energetic and so excited to share this stuff with our kids, it was great. I would love to do something like this with Dell every year.”
TJJD youth on parole and at TJJD’s other halfway houses, Tamayo and Schaeffer, also were invited to attend the sessions, which Dabholkar is now committing to digital files so they can be viewed over time at TJJD facilities.
And now about those computers. This $8,000 worth of electronic manna from Dell, will be used in a variety of ways by halfway houses and parole offices to help the youth as they prepare for jobs, further education and their life back home.
Some of the computers may be used for incentive programs for the youth at halfway houses or on parole supervision and Ayres House plans to set up a mini-lab of computers, Garza said. That will enable the young people to more easily manage their transition back to the community by completing occupational certifications and creating resumes.
The details of how the computers will be put to use, though, are still being worked out.
Giddings and Gainesville state school football teams are suited up and we're so happy to see it!
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
With apologies to the bluebonnets, Willie Nelson, and barbeque, nothing is more Texas than football. Two of TJJD’s facilities, Giddings State School and Gainesville State School, have a long-standing tradition of fielding football teams and both schools are elated to be back playing in district games in the TAPPS league this fall after a hiatus caused by the COVID pandemic.
The Giddings Mustangs played a scrimmage of Six Man, TAPPS (Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools) League Football against Summit Christian Academy in Cedar Park last Friday to shore up their offense, defense, and kicking game.
Next up is the season opener on August 26 against the squad from Bracken Christian School.
The Mustangs will be led this season by Head Coach Jonathan Wells, who returns for his second season, and Coach Arthur Aviles, and they like what they’ve seen from the youths on the squad so far.
“My favorite part of working with these kids is teaching them teamwork and the fundamentals of football. People can say how different six-man football is in comparison to eleven-man football, but football is still two things: blocking and tackles,” Coach Wells said.
He also stresses that before a youth can even be allowed to practice with the team, let alone travel with them to a game, they must meet a series of criteria that includes an established pattern of good behavior as well as having passing grades in all their classes. Coach Wells is a teacher at Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southeast and he’s quick to remind the youth that school is first and foremost.
There’s a lot about practicing and playing football that can help the young people develop. A commitment to teamwork and an emphasis on putting in the effort to play well helps prepare them to safely return to their communities, Wells said.
The spirit of teamwork goes well beyond the field for these games. Aside from the coaches, there’s a lot of teachers and staff from Giddings and Gainesville who volunteer to chaperone the events, take action photos of the game, and cheer on the youths during the games.
Organizing and accomplishing all of this is hard enough under ordinary circumstances; staffing shortages and COVID-related safety protocols make it essential that everything be done properly. None of this is possible without their dedication and support.
“I’m glad that these kiddos get the opportunity to participate just like they would if they were back home,” Coach Wells said. “I think that’s important. It gives them something they might have missed out on.”
Football fans can find the season schedules for the Giddings Mustangs and the Gainesville State School Tornadoes at our TJJD Facebook page.
(Photos: Tracey Walker, LSHSS, Giddings State School)
Retiring JJAEP expert Marie Welsch lauds probation departments for hard work on behalf of kids
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
When a valued part of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department community heads off into retirement, it’s always a bittersweet experience. We’re sad to see them go, but grateful for their time and dedication to helping the youths in our care. In this case, we wish a very happy and fulfilling retirement to Marie Welsch, who served at the TJJD since before it was even known as TJJD. Her good work for us goes back to 2003, when TJJD was known as the Texas Youth Commission.
“I’ve worked with juvenile justice alternative education programs (JJAEP) for the last ten years,” said Welsch, who was an education specialist in the Probation, Reentry and Community Services Department, “and I’m really going to miss these people who care so much about the kids they work with."
"People are not always very positive about working with these kids, but the people on the staff that we have are wonderful. They work so hard to help these kids get back on the right track and it’s been an honor to be with all of them. I’ve had lots of jobs with TYC and TJJD and this has been my favorite.”
The feeling was certainly mutual. Welsch leaves behind a score of admirers among her former coworkers.
“Marie brought great passion about the education of youth in our system to her daily work,” said colleague Amy Miller, director of Probation in the Probation and Community Services Dept.. “She was always determined to do her part when she worked in TJJD facilities and with Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs to make sure justice-involved youth weren’t left behind academically, and she excelled in that endeavor. As a co-worker, she was supportive and a great asset to every team or project.”
Reflecting on her 22 years of TJJD service, Welsch said if there was one thing she wishes the public knew more about it would be “how hard the probation departments are working to help get these kids back on the right path. They’re supportive of getting the kids what they need and that they go beyond focusing only on the offense. They go in and find out about the youths’ families and find out what help they need, they try to find the best placement for these kids. The probation departments are out there every day in the communities, doing what they can to keep the community safer and to help the kids that come through their doors.”
Marie's advice: Share the knowledge
Her advice for her peers and people starting careers with TJJD is straightforward. “Get to know the staff at the various programs,” she said. “See all the positive things they do, and share that technical assistance with everybody, because they all have such good ideas that are really good for supporting each other.”
She’s looking forward to the next chapter of her life, which is to devote more of her time to creative efforts. “I’ve been building my infrastructure for retirement for a long time,” she said. “I sew and paint and play with glass fusing and I plan to enter shows, participate with my art in the community, and more actively rejoin my sewing groups. I want to share my work and have a good time. I’ve been doing this since the 90s and it’s all been part-time. Now I get to spend more time doing all of that.”
"She was always open and willing to share her knowledge, and eager to learn new things, Miller said. “I know I speak for the entire probation services team and many others in TJJD offices and probation programs across the state when I say it has been an honor to work with her.”
Summing it up, Welsch said she’s grateful for the time she’s had to work with the people of TJJD and help the youth in care.
“I’ll miss the people the most. Being involved with them, letting them know that I’m here if there’s any way I can advocate for them.”
“It’s time for me to retire, but I have loved this job.”
Education Director Luther Taliaferro, who is retiring, brought a unique background and no-nonsense approach to the job
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
It probably won’t shock anyone to learn that TJJD’s Sr. Director of Education, Luther Taliaferro, promotes schooling as a key to success and harmonious reintegration for the young people at TJJD.
“The more education we can give these kids, the more options they’ll have in terms of their community,” he often says.
He’s also a fan of flexibility in the classroom and tells TJJD’s teaching staff that this quality more than any other – flexing to accommodate a student’s unique learning needs and styles – is the key to reaching TJJD students.
What may be a bit surprising, though, is just how much Taliaferro’s varied work life, which has taken him on three distinct career paths, is a virtual testament to just these things -- prizing education and keeping flexible.
Taliaferro, who recently celebrated 10 years at TJJD and will be retiring this month , started his career as a police officer in Tyler, near his small hometown of Arp. (We’d never heard of it either, but a map confirms it’s there in Smith County, just east of Tyler.)
He enjoyed law enforcement and was well qualified with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Texas at Tyler. But after six years as a police officer, he departed for a business opportunity, managing a car dealership in Dallas for the next 12 years.
When the dealership was sold, Taliaferro transitioned again, this time into education. He studied for and secured his teacher’s certification. He went to work for nearly eight years in Wills Point, teaching business and computer skills.
He returned to school himself and earned a master’s degree in Education Administration from Texas A&M Commerce, enabling him to move up to principal jobs in Quinlan and then New Summerfield ISD in East Texas for the next seven years.
In 2012, he left his beloved home turf of East Texas to join TJJD as Assistant Superintendent of the Education Department, a job that united his background in criminal justice and education.
“Sometimes to move up, you have to move out,” he said. “I wanted to move up to a central office administration as a superintendent and this opportunity afforded me the chance to do that, and it allowed me to help kids that probably need help more than anyone.”
Engaged, Consistent, Flexible
Taliaferro moved to Austin, where he lives with his wife Vicki Andrews. They have five adult children and 12 grandchildren, who keep them busy on weekends.
His co-workers say Taliaferro’s heart for TJJD’s kids combined with a relaxed style created his successful tenure at TJJD.
“Luther has been great to work both for and with. He’s got an easygoing but no-nonsense demeanor and is excellent at communicating and supporting his staff,” said Steven Van Nest, principal at Lone Star High School South at the Evins campus, in Edinburg. “He’s a strong advocate for Education and his steady hand has kept us moving in a positive direction.”
Lori Thorp, Professional Development Coordinator for the Education Department, has worked for Taliaferro for more than five years and values his leadership because he’s engaged, consistent and trusts his staff.
“He’s there when I need him and available when I have questions, for those of us at Central Office and the campuses. But he does not micromanage us, he stays out of our way and lets us do our job,” said Thorp, who oversees training for staff and STAR tests for youth.
When it comes to matters of education policy, she said, “he always starts at ‘what’s best for the kids.’ That’s always his starting point, and it should always be your starting point if you’re in education, what’s best for the youth.”
As the Superintendent of TJJD’s five schools, one at each of the agency’s five secure facilities, Taliaferro found himself leading a critical effort to help the youth recover school credits and move forward after difficult years in which they had been, for varied reasons, ill-equipped to pursue their studies.
“The one thing that stands out is that the kids who come to us are a little further behind than kids in ordinary schools. School had not been a focus in their life. We do our best to focus them on school and obtaining either a GED or a diploma or certifications in industry and business,” Taliaferro said.
The TJJD Education Department also does its level best to “give our kids the experience in school they would receive if they were in the community,” he said. That means the schools offer the same curriculum endorsed by the Texas Education Agency and used by public schools across the state. It means TJJD schools offer extracurricular activities such as football, basketball, track, and student councils. There’s also a full offering of vocational classes, such as welding, auto repair, horticulture, and woodshop, with corresponding certifications that the students can tout on their job applications.
Still, TJJD is a different environment, and Taliaferro advises the dozens of educators working in its schools that they must be flexible. If there’s one word that can lead to their success it is this, Taliaferro said. Being “hard-nosed” or adopting a one-way-or-the-highway approach simply won’t work in TJJD classrooms, where teachers encounter a wide variety of learning styles and differences that need addressing.
“We have to be flexible – just like in trauma-informed care – we can’t sit there as a teacher and be rigid and tell a kid ‘don’t get out of your desk’ or ‘keep that pencil in your hand.’ That doesn’t work -- it actually doesn’t work in regular public school -- but it really won’t work in our situation. With us, flexibility is the key to being successful,” he said.
Twice a year, the agency’s schools celebrate their successes, holding fully gowned graduation ceremonies awarding kids the high school diplomas or Certificates of Equivalency (GEDs) they earned while on campus. Parents are invited to eat cake and celebrate with their students.
But education at TJJD is not just books and sports.
Taliaferro and his staff recognize that to succeed in school, TJJD youth must get help for other needs. As youth who’ve been adjudicated for felonies, they may need anger management or substance abuse treatment. Agency statistics show that TJJD students have higher than average mental health issues and need counseling to unlock their potential and clear a path for a better future.
One of Taliaferro’s proudest accomplishments at TJJD has been successfully advocating for and winning a split class schedule that created blocks of time in the school day for youth to attend their treatment programs.
“A kid who has problems has to receive treatment for those problems,” he said. “In addition, they need to get an education. Education creates options for them.
“It’s all tied together because if they don’t receive appropriate treatment for whatever their problems or issues are, they cannot adequately participate in the education process. And if they don’t receive education and actually receive a diploma or industry certifications, they’re just going back out there and not have any options in life.
“I’m a big believer that education creates options for people.”
(Photos: Luther Taliaferro; student at Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex demonstrates math skills; students at Gainesville State School.)