TJJD Staff Report
Boys at Tamayo House put some good karma in the bank last week when they put their heads and hands together to help two dogs out of a fix.
“We were in the back of the house playing basketball, when we all began to hear crying and whimpering from close by,” Coach LeeRoy Diaz recalls. “Behind Tamayo house, we have a drainage canal for stormwater. As a few youth looked over our cedar fence they heard the crying coming from the canal.”
The boys ran back to Diaz, saying they could hear a puppy stuck down below and wanted to investigate.
“As we approached, we saw two stranded pups. As soon as they saw us you could see the pups were happy, as they kept on trying to jump toward us while whimpering,” Diaz said. “We imagined they had been down there for a few days due to them being wet and covered in mud.”
Diaz called the local pet shelter but they were not open yet. Meanwhile, construction workers fixing a road nearby told the group that the dogs had been there for a couple days.
“The day was hot and being stuck down there in concrete, I’m sure the pups were dehydrated and hungry. Our boys immediately wanted to help them out,” Diaz recalled. “We looked around and found an area where we could attempt the rescue."
The group assessed how to safely access the pups and extract them and then went into teamwork mode. "We made sure the youth were safe at all times as they made their way to the dogs," said Tamayo Supt. Eduardo Garza.
Working together the young men were able to lift the frightened canines to safety.
“Ours boys were as joyous as the pups,” Diaz said. “We brought the pups home and the boys bathed and fed them. It turned out that one pup was Blue Heeler, and the other one, a bulldog.”
But wait, the story gets better.
Tamayo staffers called the pet shelter the next day and the dogs were checked for chips and examined for health programs. Both were deemed healthy, but unfortunately, they were not chipped and no owners had been by looking for them.
Two Tamayo staffers stepped up and each adopted a dog.
Diaz and the young rescuers were thrilled. “These puppies will have good homes. Our youth did a good deed and gave these two pups a second chance.”
“This is what we try instill in our youth, that regardless of one’s past, everybody deserves a second chance with hope for a better life,” Diaz said.
Garza agreed that this exercise in empathy and taking action surely affected the youth: "It is my firm belief that if they can put themselves in another's shoes -- a human or an animal -- it can be healing."
By Brian Sweany, TJJD Communications Director
The list of women serving with distinction in state government is long and impressive—from executive directors of agencies to entry-level staff members looking to make their own mark serving the people of Texas. On Tuesday, one such rising star from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department will be honored with the Outstanding Leadership Award for 2020 from the Governor’s Commission for Women. Shandra Carter serves as the agency’s deputy executive director for state services, and she has played a key role in the agency’s reform efforts since she joined TJJD in 2018. Carter agreed to answer a few questions about the award below. If you’d like to watch the virtual ceremony on Tuesday, June 8, at 11 a.m., register at this link: https://bit.ly/3m6g7Me
Congratulations, Shandra, on winning such a tremendous award for your leadership at TJJD!
Thank you so much. The award is an honor, but it’s not just about me. I see it as a representation of the work of my entire team. They make my job fun and easy and rewarding—and they are the ones who are moving critical reform efforts forward because they believe in the work and our youth.
Can you talk a bit about your responsibilities at TJJD?
As the deputy executive director for state services, I have a fairly large piece of the pie—anything that relates to direct care, treatment, programming, and education for the youth in our care is my responsibility. However, I’ve learned that the benefit of having those areas under one person is that it allows me to connect the pieces of the puzzle. Rather than having the departments in silos, I can look at the big picture and figure out in the continuum what is the best interest of our youth overall. The most exciting responsibility I have is moving reform forward and weaving the Texas Model through all these departments.
You have been instrumental in rolling out the Texas Model, which is key to the agency’s reform plan. How would you explain that to someone?
I think it’s important to recognize that the Texas Model isn’t about program implementation—it’s about a culture change in how we interact with our youth. When I joined the agency, I knew I was signing up for something that would take time: it would absolutely be a journey, not an event. To help people move from a traditional correctional approach to an approach that is trauma informed—one that is relational, that has connection as the foundation, that sees the need behind problematic behavior--would take a lot of training on fundamentals of neuroscience and trauma. Once those seeds were planted, we could begin implementing new strategies, new skills, and new processes to align with those concepts. Our system is unique in that it is very large and there is not an existing correctional approach that we can cut and paste. It feels a little bit like building the plane in the air, but I’m proud of the success that we have shown. The feeling was, and still is, “Hey, team, let’s figure this out and build something amazing.”
Where do you see signs that the Texas Model is working?
I think that happens often now, which is super exciting. We have so many energetic people spread across our system who believe in our reform efforts. Every day new ideas and initiatives are being created without my input. Our staff is coming up with new approaches, interventions and programs on their own to help our youth in ways that are in line with the Texas Model, and for me that’s like a receiving a gift.
How has your view of leadership changed since you joined TJJD?
My time here has certainly deepened my appreciation and respect for our direct care staff. I started my career as a direct care staff in a juvenile justice setting and have not forgotten what it’s like. We have some warriors on our team. We have people at our facilities who work harder and are more committed than I could hope for. They show up and give 100 percent on behalf on these youth, and they keep doing it because they care. We are fortunate to have those people. They are our MVPs.
Given the profound challenges of the past year, how would you sum up the agency’s progress?
Despite COVID, despite forces of nature like winter storms, despite labor shortages, our staff remains dedicated to our mission. Reform is happening, and we are still experiencing great successes. We don’t have a magic wand but we are seeing the progress, we’re gaining momentum, and it’s making a difference. That is why we are all here--to make a difference.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
A split second, even a minute, can make such a difference in life. Did you make the right split-second decision? Are you able to slow down in the heat of the moment and consider the big picture? Can you envision the outcome of your next move and stop to regulate the emotional response rising within you?
These are considerations for everyone, especially young people, such as those at TJJD, who are learning to temper their reactions and make better decisions.
It is not necessarily easy. Youth who’ve experienced multiple and complex childhood trauma typically have difficulty regulating their emotions. Raised in uncertainty, often against a background of neglect and abuse, their fight-or-flight responses took over. They needed to survive.
How does one step out of that hypervigilance to adapt to regular life? Like many in the juvenile justice/mental health fields, Ellen Stacy, a master’s candidate at Texas State University and intern at Ayres Halfway House, thought that meditation and mindful practices could be part of the answer.
She proposed that young people could lower their stress levels and moderate their responses to challenges by learning meditation techniques. But unlike other programs that take can take hours to explain and learn, Stacy developed a set of flexible practices that juvenile offenders could adopt on the spot.
She felt strongly that the program needed to be portable and “something very simple that doesn’t take any understanding of science or psychology to understand and it’s tailored specifically to their needs.”
Ayres House in San Antonio was the testing ground. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning for several weeks this spring, Stacy led two separate groups of youth into a field behind Ayres House. The site is within clear view, just a few yards from the basketball court and picnic tables, but relatively quiet save for the chirping of birds and the occasional hum of planes flying overhead.
As a group they would do a few short sets of deep breathing followed by a cadenced walk -- a routine the youth could use later, wherever and whenever they needed to step out of a difficult situation to calm themselves.
Stacy discussed the concepts with them and explained that mindfulness is a state of being they can access at any time. Indeed, they already know what it is, she told the boys. Think of making a free throw in basketball, “you are highly focused and in the moment” -- that is how you’re able to hit the basket, she said.
“You can learn to do the same in life.”
At the end of her study in May, Stacy collected the “before” and “after” comments from the boys and assessed the trial run. She concluded that the youth would be receptive to an ongoing mindfulness program, whether it was led by staff or volunteers, and that they’d like to learn even more mindfulness techniques.
“I think it could be successful because there is already a lot of research showing positive improvements in stress management, emotional awareness, and impulse control for youth in various settings,” she said. “There is not much research yet that shows the same or lasting effects in youth offending populations, but I believe with the right modifications that make mindfulness simpler and easier to do once released, youth in TJJD care can share these benefits and hopefully have better outcomes/lower recidivism rates.”
Patty Garza, Community and Family Resource Coordinator, South District
Human Services Specialist Stephanie Trujillo Ramirez, fondly known at Ayres House as Ms. TR, keeps constant lookout for ways to help the youth prepare for the working world.
With COVID limiting the youths’ ability to get out in the community, Ms. TR has had to think creatively over the past year. She recently reached out to a barber in the community to see about presenting to Ayres House after discovering that several of the Ayres youth were greatly interested in this possible vocation.
Lauren Ozuna, a barber at Bexar County Kutz, jumped at the opportunity to share her knowledge in the field. Several youth signed up for her virtual workforce development workshop and were treated to her thorough "Barber Career 101".
Ozuna gave an overview of her experience attending Williams Barber College and obtaining her license. She worked hard, she said, and built on her skills as an independent contractor to become the manager of the barbershop after just five years. She gave a virtual tour of the barber shop, showing the tools, products and offering tips about the trade, and also answered questions from the youth.
She shared experiences about client interactions and the importance of safety for both barbers and clients. Some of her clients, she said, had even become barbers.
The youth’s eyes and smiles grew bigger as she talked about career earnings and business opportunities. One youth enthused, “I wasn’t really thinking about becoming a barber, but that sounds pretty legit!”
At the end of the presentation, Ozuna encouraged the young men to follow their dreams and career aspirations. They can make it “out here,” she stressed, if they work hard and connect their skills to a trade.
She spoke frankly to them about how she understands the appeal of “easy illegal activity” money, but she showed that a barber career can be lucrative and really is “legit” with none of the worries that come with illegal activities.
The youth greatly appreciated hearing from someone in the barbering trade and immediately asked for more virtual tours about other trades and other career-building programming.
Photos: Youth listen to the virtual presentation (upper right); Ozuna spoke from the barbershop (lower left).
By Y. Denise Caldwell, Community Resource Coordinator, Northern District
Blossoms abound at Willoughby House since the students, led by volunteer Cassie Green, spruced up the flowerbeds in front of the house and in the backyard.
According to Green, they had to plant the flowers before it got too hot.
“If it’s too hot the flowers will burn up,” she said.
Green took the lead on this project again this year, ensuring that the flowers would bloom once more. She donated personal funds and time to this project. She also received generous donations from the McFadden Community Advisory Council and longtime volunteer Bridget Marchetta to buy the necessary supplies, which she delivered to the halfway house. (The McFadden council has turned its attention to Willoughby since McFadden House closed this spring.)
The donated items included hardwood bark mulch, petunias, hydrangeas, azaleas, iris, lavender, jalapeno, sweet mint other colorful flowers and various herbs.
All of their hard work will pay off, Green said, because “the front landscaping will come back year after year and grow to be really beautiful and full.”
Green said she plans to do even more next year to beautify the grounds.
Staff and students were especially pleased with the finished results. “It looks a whole lot better,” Green said proudly.