By Y. Denise Caldwell, Volunteer Services Coordinator, Fort Worth district
McFadden Ranch honored its 2020 graduating class of six young men with a first-ever virtual graduation for the halfway house in Roanoke.
The Sept. 28 ceremony was broadcast simultaneously on Zoom and Microsoft’s Teams, allowing the graduate’s delighted families and volunteers to participate.
The graduates, W.A., A. F., M. F., C.C., N. S., and J. S., proudly wore their caps and gowns as Supt. Marketa Johnson presented each youth with their diploma.
Parents watching at home said they were happy to see their sons graduate and witness the ceremony. (See the Zoom view in the picture, right and below.)
“I thought them doing this for the boys was an excellent, positive experience for them. I thought it was confidence-building and great way for them to take pride in themselves,” said one mother, noting that each boy spoke at the end of the diploma presentation and also chose a song to play as they marched off.
“It was good to see him and celebrate with all of them,” she said.
The Zoom ceremony, created to work within COVID-19 restrictions on in-person events, was especially helpful for parents who live far from McFadden Ranch, said another mother, who resides in West Texas. “It was nice to watch the video,” she said, despite a few technical hiccups in which some parents’ unmuted microphones caused brief interruptions.
Both proud moms expect their sons home within weeks, ready to start their next chapter in life. One plans to launch a lawncare business and the other hopes to train in welding or diesel mechanics and later find a job to finance college.
In addition to being the first to graduate on a livestream, the McFadden Ranch group was the first TJJD class to hear former President Barak Obama as their virtual commencement speaker.
Obama appeared on a large TV screen, which played his pre-recorded speech “Graduate Together: High School Class of 2020 Commencement.” In the talk, released earlier this year for public use, the president congratulates this year’s graduates on their accomplishments and urges them to be prepared for future challenges.
The XQ Institute organized the Obama address earlier this year to provide all 2020 graduates across the US with a special moment at a time when in-person graduations had to be cancelled or curtailed. The institute works with schools in partnership with The LeBron James Family Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
Despite the pandemic, Obama said, “what remains true is that your graduation marks your passage into adulthood — the time when you begin to take charge of your own life. It’s when you get to decide what’s important to you: the kind of career you want to pursue. Who you want to build a family with. The values you want to live by.
The former president advised the class of 2020 to “not be afraid,” because the country has been through tough times before, historically, and always emerged stronger. He also urged graduates to “ground yourselves in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others You won’t get it right every time, you’ll make mistakes like we all do. But if you listen to the truth that’s inside yourself — even when it’s hard, even when it’s inconvenient — people will notice. They’ll gravitate towards you, and you’ll be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
Another first: The graduates chose their own marching music, which included Tupac’s “Dear Mama” tribute and other songs.
The McFadden Community Advisory Council provided refreshments and as a special honor, the Denton Kiwanis presented each youth with a $50 check and a letter of congratulations.
TJJD employees also were invited to participate virtually during the ceremony. "Together we all wanted to affirm these students in a job well done on this joyous occasion," said Supt. Johnson, thanking those who attended and those who helped make the event possible.
She added that she hoped it ignited a fire under the other youth to earn their high school diplomas or educational equivalency certificates.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Troy McPeak betrays only a hint of a smile as he sets the two teams of adults scurrying across the floor at cross purposes.
Team One is told to knock down the orange pylons and Team Two is instructed to put them back up. And quickly. The 20 or so staff bend and duck, laugh and swing arms as they swoop up and down, swarming over the red tile floor of the Giddings State School chapel.
McPeak orders them to switch roles. They pause, and begin again, with the opposite goal, bees on a mission.
It seems fun and games have erupted at TJJD. Outside the chapel, the youth are shrieking in delight during a game of splash kick ball. Inside, the adults are grinning and loose as rag dolls. This day is clearly more enjoyable than filling out paperwork and miles ahead of a visit to the dentist.
But it’s not exactly all play time either.
McPeak is training the staff in this and other exercises they can use that comprise the Texas Model constellation of activities. These entertaining, sometimes hilarious, but strategic games draw on the latest brain development science and trauma-informed care concepts to help youth gain control of their lives.
McPeak has just run the adults through the competitive high-activity pylon game so they can experience “dysregulation” -- a heightened state of raised emotions, with a quickened heart beat and respiration -- followed by a calm down period in which they get “regulated” or back to normal.
He wants these staff members to learn the game and importantly, to feel what the youth will experience as they play this and other Texas Model activities that challenge them to build resilience and learn emotional restraint.
“We want to be proactive,” McPeak explains afterward. “We can’t expect staff and youth to truly understand the art of regulation if they have not practiced first.”
Starting in 2019, McPeak, Associate Director of the Texas Model, along with Ian Bracken, Texas Model Activities Leader, among others began rolling out the Texas Model games and activities across TJJD campuses.
Regulation and dysregulation was the theme that came up again and again. By late 2020, virtually everyone working with TJJD youth -- Youth Development Coaches, caseworkers, therapists -- understood why and was employing these activities every day.
“Our main goal of these games is to teach kids to regulate their brain and body. Most of the reasons the majority of our youth are incarcerated is they’re not able to regulate their emotional state, which leads to them doing something that’s unacceptable -- and they get arrested and put in detention,” says Bracken, who hails from Waco and Baylor University where he studied education and earned a master’s in sports pedagogy.
“So if we can teach the youth to interpret the environmental stresses and sensory inputs they’re going to encounter in life, and to respond in ways that aren’t maladaptive, they have a better chance of being successful.”
Why are some young people able to regulate and others not so good at it? That is a deep subject that gets to the heart of the Texas Model methodologies. Youth who end up in trouble with the law, who wind up at TJJD, have a much higher exposure to trauma. Studies have found this to be true of similar youth populations nationally and TJJD statistics confirm it for Texas youth caught up in the justice system.
On the whole, TJJD kids have experienced far more neglect, family division, sexual or physical abuse and other traumas than youth in the general population. More than half have experienced family violence and about two-thirds report having had an incarcerated household member.
(You can find more on this topic in our article about ACES or Adverse Childhood Experiences.)
Many justice-involved youth have lived their early life in trepidation, if not fear. The multiple and recurring traumatic and chaotic events they’ve experienced have molded them to be ever vigilant, and their brains, to varying degrees, have become over-reactive. Poverty and other circumstances, such as family losses or addiction, may have piled on, exacerbating fears and feelings of powerlessness.
Learning differences, either caused by or contributing to emotional control issues, complicated matters as well. Nearly 90 percent of TJJD youth are either one, two or three grade levels behind at the time of commitment.
For these youth born of trauma and hard places, their “survival brain” has taken charge. And this has unfurled a cascade of issues, because living in survival mode thwarts development. It likely interfered with their ability to build the trusting relationships that are necessary for learning. In turn, it eroded their ability to focus on school and hobbies, not to mention how it diminished their basic enjoyment of life.
You don’t need a course in Maslow to understand this. In his trainings, Bracken puts the activities he’s teaching into this framework of early brain development:
When a child is an infant or young toddler, they need external regulation. (Picture the dangerous bravado of an 18-month old; they need nearly constant supervision.) This is step one.
The next step or level of development is “co-regulation” in which a child learns alongside a guiding adult how to behave, deal with the ups and downs of life and make good decisions. The adult models, instructs, protects and provides that “safe space” that makes room for learning.
The third step or level of level of development is, of course, internalized self-regulation.
For youth who’ve been traumatized these foundational steps have been short-circuited and ascending to step three has been difficult, even elusive.
The circuit board needs re-wiring and a key way to do that is to engage in play in a controlled environment. “Play disarms fear,” as Bracken and McPeak say, and that clears the path to take us back to the foundational learning.
“Most mammals play in their early development. So play is a way to teach children to develop their imagination, increase their physical and cognitive strength,” Bracken explains.
Play unlocks that frozen “flight, fight or freeze” mode that a child who’s been traumatized may be stuck in.
It is impossible to be angry when you’re laughing, Bracken points out.
And so the Texas Model games have begun in earnest: Ball games, marshmallow tossing, dancing with parachutes and racing crazily around the room playing chase or wheelbarrow. And that’s tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of games in the literal manual, the Texas Model activities book.
But always, these energizing and exciting games are followed by deliberate actions that bring calm. These are simple movements, pushing on a wall, blowing on pretend bowl of soup or another breathing exercise. These proprioceptive (physical) activities bring down the pace, slow the heart rate and tamp the adrenaline. This helps everyone get back to normal by switching out of their “high engine.”
In terms of what’s happening neurologically, the return to normal puts the frontal cortex, the center of reason, back in charge.
“We intentionally dysregulate them, in a controlled environment, and then teach to how to control their body through their physiological processes, how to control their brain essentially and calm back down,” Bracken says.
By giving the youth a chance to “flip their lid” (to a degree)and then recover, the trainings are proactively helping the teens build emotional resilience, says McPeak, who joined TJJD after pioneering a trauma-informed program, Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), at Williamson County Juvenile Services.
“Science suggests that by practicing these skills in a playful environment, it will take only five to twelve repetitions to literally build new synapses in the brain,” he says.
How else to learn to regulate, but through practice?
Bracken tells about a favorite game that illustrates perfectly how this works. It’s called “Tiger Tails” and looks something like flag football, but with pairs of players composing a head and a tail of the tiger.
It requires teamwork. First, the group of youth, perhaps a dozen or so, get set up as “tigers” in teams of two. The “tail” holds onto the “head” as the pair runs after other tigers, trying to yank off their tails (strips of cloth tucked into a collar or a pocket).
The tiger tail player, meanwhile, tries to protect their backside. The scramble raises emotions and gets the competitive juices flowing; the youth aren’t “flipping their lids” in anger but their physiological responses are similar. They’re revved up and excited.
When a tiger loses their tail, the duo must step out of the game and take to the wall and do 10 seconds or so of “wall pushes” or deep breathing until they, as a team, determine they’ve “regulated” they can rejoin the game.
This rule helps leaven this competition. It’s not a “winner take all” type game, which is important for youth who may have experienced many life disappointments. It is, however, high action and enables multiple opportunities to self-regulate.
The game is not that different from typical PE games, Bracken says, except it includes and focuses on that key recovery or wind-down moment. Games in the wider world do not.
And that’s critical for youth who’ve endured trauma and are learning to gain control of their emotions.
The high energy, large-muscle games, which can be played during the youths’ daily recreation hour or any other time available, are just one piece of a larger mosaic. Texas Model activities also include quieter pursuits, such as art, music, poetry and meditation activities, outlets for youth who may be more inclined toward the fine arts.
Sometimes the large-muscle games follow “Nurture Group,” another component feature of the Texas Model that involves a talking session in which the youth relax and discuss their moods, accomplishments and concerns. Nurture Group follows carefully prescribed conventions -- such as the “check-in” in which youth verbalize how they’re feeling and the “no hurts” rule -- that help youth relax, communicate better and bond with each other and their staff in protective setting that teaches caring and encourage expression.
It’s all calibrated to help youth build that foundational trust that will enable and deepen all their experiences at TJJD and beyond.
Participation in all types of games is open to all. Stakes are kept low and staff aim for a light touch, engaging with empathy and humor, where appropriate. (Remember? It’s hard to be angry while you’re smiling and laughing.)
Getting excited is OK too. Bracken gets a tad animated himself, explaining how the Tiger Tail game and another one, called Alliance, shake everyone up as part of the long game toward healing.
“We’re trying to dysregulate them on purpose, because that’s the only way they can learn, and that’s the part most people you teach these concepts to are scared of – (they ask) why would you dysregulate a kid on purpose? I thought our goal was to regulate them?”
“Well,” he says, “because what we know about the brain is that it learns from experience.”
Photos: 1) Staff at Giddings State School play a game during a training; Troy McPeak (tan shirt, center) directs the game 2)Youth and staff play a wheelbarrow game during Nurture Group activities at Ayres Halfway House in San Antonio -- afterward they'll wind down with a calming activity 3) Staff and youth at Ayres House toss a soccer ball that serves as a "talking feather" because it's imprinted with questions to get conversations started; Ian Bracken (middle rear) looks on 4) The Texas Model aims to keep youth safe as they learn emotional control; this graphic painted on the wall at Gainesville State School mentions some of the governing principles of Trust Based Relational Intervention, Connecting, Correcting, Empowering, which also are taught as part of the Texas Model.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
At TJJD family days, parents, grandparents, siblings and mentors rush in with a smile and a hug for the young people they’ve come to see.
Families snuggle into groups over plates of barbecue and games of UNO and checkers. They hold hands, whisper secrets, and grin at each other across the table.
But this happy picture can be wrenchingly painful for the handful of TJJD youth who have no family to visit on such special days. For myriad reasons -- family estrangement, addiction, incarceration, dislocation, prohibitive travel costs -- these kids expect no relatives, not even a cousin, to turn up.
That’s where Lynn and Laura Fletcher come in. The Houston couple, parents to four adult children and foster parents to 27 throughout the years, decided in 2012 that they had room in their hearts for even more young people and became a near ubiquitous presence at major events at the Giddings State School.
Laura, a retired teacher, and Lynn, an accountant, were already working with Christian prison ministries for adults when Laura, speaking with a fellow volunteer, learned about the mentoring program at Giddings.
She walked from that conversation directly to Lynn in another room and “told him what we’d be doing,” she recalls with a laugh. They both laugh at that, revealing the infectious good humor that has brightened countless family days and other occasions at the Giddings campus, where in normal times, the Fletchers could be found surrounded by young people, often snuggled in over plates of barbecue and games of UNO.
“They’re very committed and they’re such a light, they just radiate,” said Janet Sheelar, a staff member with the Community Relations office at Giddings.
Lately, with visitation and in-person mentoring suspended during the coronavirus pandemic, the Fletchers, like all TJJD mentors and volunteers, have been keeping in contact with youth via FaceTime chats and by writing letters.
But for the past eight years, the Fletchers drove to Giddings every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to meet with the youth in their mentoring groups. They were religious, no pun intended, about making that two-hour drive twice a week, with additional 240-mile periodic roundtrip treks to see particular youth at special events, such as graduations, football games and track meets.
“We celebrate everything they do right,” says Laura. “If they get a GED or diploma or they stay in a program, or do a stage change, or make AB honor roll, we celebrate it. Just like we would for our own kids.”
A youth who’s marked an accomplishment may get to choose the food for their next mentor meeting, which the Fletchers would begin with a family style meal. At the least, the Fletchers would bring or send a congratulatory card.
They keep up with the dozen or so kids in their present mentoring circles, and dozens of others who’ve left Giddings for transitional or halfway homes, jobs and college.
Over the years, the number of youth they had mentored just kept growing.
“We stopped counting at 300,” says Lynn, asked for a cumulative tally. Some days, he says, the couple will get a call from as many as four former TJJD youth, just checking in or reporting some news.
The day before we interviewed, the couple had heard from a youth they worked with years before. He was reporting a poignant milestone and wanted the Fletchers to know first: He had made parole.
Everyone wants to be heard
At their mentoring sessions, called “circles,” the Fletchers would meet with a group of six youth in the chapel, where the soaring ceilings and religious motifs set a tone of seriousness. The meetings began with a family style meal and included a short devotion and discussion of a Bible verse. For most of the time, however, the Fletchers and teens just talked. “We do something called ‘Highs and Lows,’ where they talk about the best and worst parts of their week,” Laura says. “It’s how we’ve always talked to our own kids.”
Lynn and Laura also take each youth aside individually, to make sure they have an opportunity to say what’s on their mind.
“They want somebody just to talk to, somebody to listen to them, and I think for many of them, they haven’t had that,” she said. “It could be because of trust.”
The kids, she said, can be precocious and more than one has told her point blank, “I have trust issues.” Laura laughs lightly, again.
It doesn’t happen immediately, she says, but over the course of building their relationship, the boys open up and express a full range of emotions and even “are able to cry in front of us.”
On the flip side, Laura said, some of the youth seem genuinely puzzled by their behavior and motivations. Over the years, she’s heard several utter some variant of, “I wake up in the morning and I’m angry, but I don’t know why.”
But whether they can identify their root issues, all the kids benefit from being heard.
“A lot of these kids look very stoic. They have a wall up,” Laura says. “But that is not the real person. And when they let the wall down, you can see that precious person inside, and everybody wants to be seen.”
Laura Fletcher understands emotional walls. She grew up in Galveston in households disrupted by addiction and experienced abuse and neglect as a child.
“I grew up feeling unloved and unloving and invisible,” she says. She managed to move beyond that unsupportive environment to attend Texas A & M, where Lynn also got his degree.
But some experiences you don’t forget. So when Laura meets kids at Giddings who seem unloving and uncaring, she sees them as young people who haven’t felt loved.
“I think when people are loved they can become loving. Some of these kids who don’t seem loving at the beginning, they are still capable of it.”
The Fletchers are special people and Laura’s past, in particular, gives her unique insight into what many of the youth are feeling, says Anita Schwartz, who as Community Relations Coordinator for Giddings State School oversees the mentoring program.
“It’s almost like a peer-to-peer relationship, and those kind of relationships are very therapeutic,” Schwartz said. The Fletchers, like the many other successful mentors who volunteer at Giddings, understand that the listening is key.
They don’t listen to “make a response” or to “fix it or find a solution,” Schwartz said. “They just listen, and I think she’s really, really good at that.”
Lynn’s childhood was the mirror opposite of Laura’s. He comes from a warm and supportive family background. His special touch with the youth: An unflappable style and irrepressible sense of humor.
He recounts how one young man, an aspiring musician, expressed frank disgust for drawing Lynn as a mentor when he discovered Fletcher could teach him neither the guitar nor the drums.
“Then why did I get you as a mentor?” the youth sputtered at their first meeting.
“‘What instruments do you play?’ is often an opening question, Lynn explains. “I tell them, ‘None!’ he says brightly. And “when they ask me if I can teach them to play the guitar, I tell them I’ll teach them after I learn.”
Invariably, Lynn’s lack of musical skill is soon forgotten as the young men nearly always fall into a close relationship with both Fletchers.
Of course, there are occasional youth who prove difficult to reach, Laura says, and the Fletchers realize they must be discerning when working with the boys. Some have tales to tell and some are inveterate rule benders.
“We hold them accountable,” she said. “We’re not mushy.”
Finding a better path
The vast majority of the young people they’ve worked with, they say, earnestly want to improve.
It may not be apparent at first because they are mistrusting and can be emotional or withdrawn -- their way of protecting themselves, coming, as so many do, from a background of trauma, poverty or family disruptions.
“I would say every single one of the kids we’ve worked with has a trauma background. With some it’s horrific. You wonder how they’re still standing. To watch them learn how to trust somebody and to communicate with their words and not their fists, it’s great to watch,” Laura says.
As parents and foster parents, the Fletchers learned long ago that trust, love and consistency are key to nudging young people toward positive changes.
So they stay committed -- 50,000 miles a year on their Hyundai and thousands of hours mentoring committed.
This is their purpose and “God calls us to do it,” Lynn says.
Staying consistent is why, in addition to the fun events, the Fletchers also turn up at court hearings, ARD (special education) meetings and other interventions, and sometimes write letters to judges and parole panels. These less visible appearances are their way of doing every last thing they can to support a youth they’re mentoring and signaling they’ll always be there.
Sometimes, the child they’re rooting for will succeed brilliantly. They mention one youth who is in college, living independently, with a good future ahead; another just recently got a job in a warehouse and has a supportive girlfriend.
One youth they keep up with is a “smart and charming” young man who participates in a 12-step program. He’s working to beat the addiction that claimed many close family members. When he was at his family home “he’d call and say, ‘I can’t stay here, everybody’s using’,” Laura said.
He “slipped” for a while, but “he got back up,” she says, and while this period of social distancing has been difficult, he is keeping afloat. Fingers crossed.
Success at Giddings is not always measured as one might in more privileged places: It could mean that a youth advanced one stage on the behavioral ladder or completed a vocational-technical certificate. But these achievements loom large, because they represent a turn away from the destructive path they’d been on.
Sometimes, along with the nurturing, the young people they’ve mentored need reality checks.
One hurdle the Fletchers regularly confront is that the young men, having had contact with gangs or family and friends who’ve gone to prison, have a mythologized image of incarceration.
They stress to these youth that Giddings is “summer camp” by comparison and presents them a chance to avoid going to an adult prison, either for their current sentenced offense or for later charges if they persist on the wrong path.
But 17-year-olds can be hard-headed. Laura tells about one youth who broke their hearts when he stumbled after leaving Giddings.
She remembers embracing this strapping teenager as he departed the campus some four years ago. “I gave him a hug, and he said, ‘That’s the first hug I’ve ever had’.
He tried, but failed, to stay out of trouble and ended up in prison. They stay in touch and he repeatedly tells the Fletchers to warn the kids still at Giddings to get their lives in order while they’re there.
“He tells me all the time,” Laura says, a hitch in her voice. “ ‘Tell the boys, I waited too long to change, don’t wait too long to change’.”
Looking back at their Giddings experience, the young men often tell Laura and Lynn how they were helped by the schooling and encouragement they received at Giddings.
But more than any single event or achievement, it’s the relationships they made that seem to have left the biggest imprint.
Laura and Lynn have gleaned this from their interactions with current and former TJJD youth.
“Of all the youth we’ve worked with, only one ever asked us for money,” Laura said. This illustrates to her that for all their big talk about buying expensive things and finding lucrative jobs, what the young men really crave is human connection, and when they find that, they cherish it.
Just last week, the Fletchers received a letter from a youth who’d joined their mentoring group shortly before in-person meetings were suspended. He’d seemed disengaged and they worried at the time that maybe he just didn’t care.
But his letter was long and effusive. He was making progress in his therapy program. He had plans to progress on his “stages.” And he wanted to know how they were doing.
“I Know you guys are probably bored,” he wrote. (You can feel Laura grinning at that.) “I hope you are staying inside and no one in your family is sick,” he added. More details about campus events, and then he closed:
“Thank you for taking me into your heart and accepting me as your child.”
(If you are interested in becoming a TJJD mentor, please see the story "How to become a mentor" published here on our website.)
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Tamayo House staffers Israel Saenz and Gerardo Penuelas both discovered guitars as kids and found joy making music.
Today they reach back to those early experiences when they were immersed in teen bands or plucking away in self-soothing solitude as they teach the young men at Tamayo how to pick, strum and otherwise rock out in their own way.
For Saenz, who came of age in the 1980s and loves roots and rock and the blues, everything from Robert Johnson to Stevie Ray Vaughan, his guitar was his trusted boyhood companion.
“I tell these boys that when I was growing up, my guitar never let me down, whether I was sad or not. I could always express my feelings with it.”
As a left-hander from a household where money was tight, Saenz had to restring the acoustic guitar his mother found for him at a rummage sale. Paid lessons were out of the question. But he found inspiration in the music and life story of the great Jimi Hendrix, a fellow leftie and self-taught guitarist, who not only mastered the instrument, but shook up the world with his reverberations.
Back in the ‘80s, long before YouTube instructional videos, Saenz listened to local musicians at restaurants and Quinceañeras. He picked the players brains, if not also their instruments. Then he returned home to dwell in the peace of working out tunes on his broken guitar that bullies teased him about.
By age 15, he played by ear so well that “of course I was in a band,” Saenz says with a knowing chuckle. Who wasn’t in a band at 15!
His ensemble played the cover songs everyone wanted to hear. And Saenz greatly enjoyed entertaining people. But he later broke away to create his own music.
“I love to write music. A lot of people like to play cover songs, but to me, someone already did that.”
At the age of 11, Penuelas was also searching for a way to take the music lessons he couldn’t afford. He found the solution at his Catholic church, where he picked up both the guitar and the art of barter and trade.
He asked the church elders if he could receive guitar lessons. He could, replied the priest, though he drove a hard bargain: Penuelas could get lessons in exchange for playing at masses.
“I ended up playing at the 9 and the 12 -- and the 5 on Sundays -- and the 5 on Saturday,” Penuelas recalls. He played four masses each weekend, for many weekends, adding up to many masses -- and he became a young master guitarist.
By 13, Penuelas was himself instructing a passel of younger kids at the church. He was allowed to use a classroom for the lessons -- $1.50 a pop per student – as long as he kept playing guitar, that’s right, at mass.
Soon, he was also teaching adults at the church and this time devising the deal. He gave guitar lessons in exchange for piano lessons for himself.
He joined a teen band, expanded into vocals, and took everything he learned at the church out into the wider world. His band played paid gigs at parties and TV stations, and once brokered a plan where they watched movies for free at a local theater in exchange for performances.
“At intermission, we’d rock and roll!” Penuelas says.
Though they never “made it big,” his band enjoyed cranking out covers of popular Eagles and Doobie Brothers tunes.
Penuelas kept with music, performing with his high school choir and in musicals like The Music Man and South Pacific. Later he studied voice at Pan American University in Edinburg (now the University of Texas at PanAm) and as adult, joined various community bands and chorales, while building his daytime career in social work and public safety.
Paying it forward at Tamayo House
Today, Saenz, a Youth Development Coach, and Penuelas, a caseworker, bring their decades of knowledge to their work at Tamayo House, a halfway house in Harlingen, where they relish the opportunity to help youth find the emotional lift music can provide.
“Music can open a lot of doors for them, even if they’re very passive about it, it can release a lot of stress. They can write a song about how they’re feeling, and play the guitar at the same time. Without using any drugs or alcohol, they can lose themselves playing guitar and at the same time it creates a discipline,” Penuelas said.
For youth who’ve suffered traumatic childhoods, as so many at TJJD have, and may be slow to trust, playing music can be both quell social anxiety and provide a bridge to connect with others.
“It’s the universal language,” says Saenz, who’s worked at TJJD for 23 years, the last 12 at Tamayo.
He began teaching guitar to interested youth more than a decade ago, alongside Youth Development Coach Derek Rivera, a former music teacher who then led the lessons at Tamayo. They taught mainly on weekends, when the schedule allowed, but with the support of Tamayo leadership, now helmed by Superintendent Eduardo Garza.
Last year, Garza and TJJD leaders boosted the program by adding three new guitars and several rhythm drums.
“This program exemplifies what we’re trying to do with the Texas Model, helping youth to feel empowered and extend themselves and try new things,” Garza said. “That works so well when they have caring role models like Saenz and Penuelas.”
Saenz, 49, teaches the boys as he learned, not reading music, but playing by ear and feel. He stresses four key aspects to keep progressing: “I tell them, first picture it in your mind; then feel the music; then express it through the instrument and four, the most important part, is to share it.”
Sharing is important because it builds human connections and commitment to the music, Saenz said. He’s written music for relatives including a song for a cousin who lost his son. “It was like his soul was speaking to me. I think it’s a beautiful song. It’s about his son and his relationship.”
Saenz works in inspirational stories about musicians, recounting, for instance, how legendary guitarist Eric Clapton “went through a dark time when he lost his 7 year old son.”
“He went through a depression. But he expressed all those feelings through his music and he gave us a gift -- that song, ‘Tears in Heaven’. You can really feel what he was expressing and we can also feel for a loved one or a friend,” Saenz said.
He encourages the boys to express themselves and not worry about matching what others can do. He tells them there’s no “bad” music, if a person is expressing their feelings.
Once he sees a Tamayo student is striving to learn, Saenz tries to provide the music the young man loves, whether its blues, rock, country or Tejano. Recently, he helped a young man learn a Hendrix-style version of the Star Spangled Banner, a song the youth wanted to learn to share with his father.
“I try to simplify the music they’re liking and once they see it’s possible to play the songs they like, it just encourages them to want to play more. I demonstrate what you can do, but from then on it’s about them and what they want to do.”
Penuelas, 61, who’s been at TJJD for 15 years, teaches guitar and drums to Tamayo youth. The drums appeal to young men who’re working out rap rhythms or lyrics.
Like Saenz, he’s motivated to spread the happiness music brings and help the youth learn something they can take with them, whether it’s the start of a hobby, vocation or just positive memories.
“They can play guitar wherever they go and they can also teach their kids the guitar. It’s a fun instrument to play,” Penuelas said.
“I tell them it’s like riding a bicycle, you never forget, but if you don’t practice you cannot be doing those wheelies,” Saenz said.
Both men say they’re glad that the program is stronger than ever, with a better equipped music room that tempts youth to try the strings.
“There’s been a lot of youth who’ve taken advantage of this and learned a lot,” Saenz said, “and when I see how excited they get that’s just a great feeling.
(Photos: Top - Israel Saenz works with a student in a private lesson. Bottom - Gerardo Penuelas poses with three of his music students.)
Several TJJD campuses boast thriving edible gardens either as free-standing projects or part of the horticulture programs offered by Lone Star high schools.
These include two new promising gardens installed this spring at Ayres and Tamayo halfway houses, where students and staff carved out backyard beds and planted peppers, melons and other edibles.
Meanwhile, the large established gardens at the Gainesville and Edinburg facilities are bursting with life this June as tomatoes, squash, corn and greens mature and companion flowers bloom, brightening the campus and inviting beneficial insects like butterflies and ladybugs.
These venues provide students with opportunities to learn about horticulture and earn certificates they can use when they are ready for work.
At Gainesville, horticulture teacher Steven Seeds (whose parents apparently knew he was destined for this work) oversees sprawling outdoor beds and a greenhouse packed with flowers and vegetable plants where he and his horticulture students learn about planting and pruning, soils and amendments and how to vanquish plant pests.
Seeds’ gardens are a revolving cornucopia, with this year’s beds containing three types of corn, potatoes, Swiss chard, onions, cucumbers, wildflowers and cherry, Roma and beefsteak tomatoes. Serrano and jalapeno peppers grow in the greenhouse.
His horticulture students enjoy tending the gardens because they get to see and sample the fruits of their efforts, says Lone Star North Principal Eric LeJeune. “The kids love the little peppers, they really like the hot stuff.”
The youth also appreciate learning the applied sciences of horticulture and landscaping because it helps build skills they can use to get jobs at nurseries or landscaping companies, LeJeune and Seeds said. These vocations provide great entry-level jobs and also opportunities for creating one's own business, Seeds said.
Beyond that, many of the kids also already understand that gardens are an adjunct to self-sufficiency, a way to supplement one’s income and assure well-fed families.
“A lot of them tell me they have had gardens at home, mostly with grandparents, they tell me grandparents have instilled gardening with them,” said Seeds who’s managed the Gainesville program for five years following 40 years teaching a variety of vocational classes at North Texas schools in St. Joseph and Maybank.
“I like to help these kids, a lot of them have never had the help they needed,” he said. “They like for people to get in there and teach them stuff and help them to create a job for themselves when they get out.”
Over the last four years, some 100 students at the Gainesville campus have earned the Texas Nursery Landscape Association’s state certificate, he said. That has real meaning when they apply for work with nurseries or landscape companies.
At the Evins facility in Edinburg, horticulture teacher Timothy Hinds manages the classes and the plots. Hinds and his students grow tomatoes, carrots, greens and watermelon. He says the vegetable gardens will virtually shut down in the middle of the high hot season in July and August.
At Gainesville, too, the horticulture program will take a pause in the middle of summer, though students can continue with the book-learning aspect of the program.
Then soon it will time to plan and plant the fall gardens.