The TJJD community lost a beloved, tenured employee last week when Marcus Jerome Smith, a Youth Development Coach at the McLennan County campus, in Mart, passed away Jan. 10 after being hospitalized with complications from COVID-19.
Smith, 48, was a native of Corsicana and had worked at TJJD/TYC for more than 26 years, where he is fondly remembered. He is survived by his daughter Tamia Z. Smith; grandson Zayden D. Smith Bradley; mother Debra L. Woods; father and stepmother, Billy R. and Evelyn Smith; four brothers, Zerick C. Waites, Willie Ray Smith, Ryan Smith (Ashley), and Terry Douglas; two sisters, Bianca Smith, and Tara Douglas, and many other relatives. He was preceded in death by sister Felicia Waites and his stepfather Nathaniel Woods.
Celebration of Life services will be at 3 pm, Saturday, Jan. 22, at Lifeline Church, 5301 W. Hwy 31, Corsicana. A viewing will be 11 am to 7 pm on Friday, Jan. 21, at M. R. Smith Parlor for Funerals, 1236 N. Business 45, Corsicana.
“Our team at Mart suffered a terrible loss with the passing of Marcus Smith. He will be missed more than words can express,” said Supt. Michelle Havranek. “He was not just our co-worker; he was a good friend to all who worked for TJJD. Our hearts go out to his family during this time of sorrow.”
Colleagues and friends remember Smith, known as “Big Moe,” as a friendly but always professional Youth Development Coach who had a knack with the youth. He played games with them and counseled the young men (and his adult colleagues) on proper grammar, one of his many passions.
“Mr. Smith was fair and consistent with the young men he worked with,” said one co-worker. “He always encouraged our youth to progress in their programs. He guided them to be better young men.”
Mr. Smith was a talented dominoes player and an avid sports fan who adored the San Francisco 49ers, but boldly shunned the Cowboys, and would have cheered the outcome of the teams’ matchup last weekend.
“He was the ultimate Cowboys hater,” said friend and colleague Lisa Smith. “His football team was the 49ers; basketball was the Lakers. He would attend the Lakers vs. Mavericks game each year just to talk noise and enjoy our favorite teams.”
Good friends knew Marcus had many talents. “He was the best dominoes player I knew, as well as card games, such as spades. In his spare time, he collected Lego blocks and would build different buildings, bridges and, even built a model of the home he wanted for his own,” Lisa Smith said.
“His favorite masterpiece was, of course, the model of the 49er’s stadium.”
Smith worked in direct care roles for most of his career at the Texas Youth Commission/Texas Juvenile Justice Department. He started at the now-closed Corsicana State School and moved later to McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, in Mart. He served as a Juvenile Correctional Officer and later Youth Development Coach and worked for several years in supervisory roles, overseeing JCOs and as a dorm supervisor.
He was a graduate of Corsicana High School Class of 1992 and attended ITT Technical School where he studied graphic design.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Dennis Smith, a steady, compassionate leader at Giddings State School for more than two decades, retired last week as principal at Lone Star High School at Giddings.
Smith, who worked as a math teacher before becoming an administrator in Central Texas public schools, said his work at Giddings’ LSHS has been enormously rewarding because the school helps kids overcome challenges and reach for opportunities they hadn’t realized could be theirs. This came home to him the first year he served at Giddings, in 1997.
“The highlight of my career at TJJD was our first graduation. . . and all our graduations,” he said.
“They’re always so special, but what was special to me, was how meaningful they were for some of the families. At public school, everyone is expected to graduate, but here, it’s a big deal. Some of these kids they’re the first in their family to get a GED or diploma,” Smith said.
The school traditionally holds a full, gowned graduation ceremony in the campus chapel with music and a guest speaker, attended by students’ families and teachers. Students process in and are called to receive their diploma or GED or vocational certificate. The school, like all high schools at TJJD, offers a full certified high school diploma and several vocational classes, such as auto repair, welding and occupational safety or horticulture.
“With everything going against these kids, the ones that get their GED or diploma or vocational certificate, they’re far and away better off,” Smith said. It improves their odds of success and “it’s just inspiring,” he said.
Smith was known as a thoughtful, unflappable leader, who was frequently seen greeting youth and staff in the halls and attending events, like football or basketball games. He advocated for the school to have a full plate of resources, from the library to the welding shop.
Smith was proactive, always looked ahead to head off issues and treated his staff like family, said Assistant Principal Robert E. French. He was “never too busy to take care of visiting with them in a laidback manner and give full attention to their concerns and needs whether it be professional or personal.”
“As a result, staff did their very best to do a good job and help students, especially those who are most challenging,” French said. “I think this is the secret to the success of his leadership which has been so effective over the years at Giddings.”
French, who counts Smith as a close friend as well as a colleague, said the two would visit at the end of each day to take stock of successes and areas that needed improvement, long or short term.
Smith also played an important role across TJJD’s broader Education Department, said TJJD Superintendent Luther Taliaferro.
“I have depended on him my entire time as superintendent. His experience in his job has been very valuable to me,” Taliaferro said. As the longest serving principal at TJJD schools, “Dennis has provided mentorship to the newly hired principals. He will be missed.”
Smith said he will greatly miss his daily interactions with the youth and a teaching staff for which he has tremendous respect.
”Our teachers have a special, special gift for what they do. Interacting with them is sometimes very humbling, because of what they do every day,” he said.
His advice to teachers, particularly in a more challenging setting, such as TJJD classrooms where students are often dealing with past traumas and trying to catch up to grade level: “Patience is a virtue and don’t take anything that happens personally.”
That doesn’t mean to not hold students accountable, he added, just understand that what they might be saying or acting out isn’t really directed at you.
Smith’s own family includes two grown children, a daughter in Austin and a son in San Antonio, one grandchild, and Smith’s fiancé, Debra Koslan.
He is planning a busy retirement, starting with overseeing a new house that he and Koslan are having built in a coastal community near Rockport. There Smith plans to enjoy his hobbies of fishing, cooking, barbecuing and woodworking.
Smith’s education career spans 40 years. He started out as a math teacher at Allen Military Academy in Bryan in 1981, and later taught or served as a principal or assistant principal in Temple, Smithville and Hillsboro public schools. He joined the then-Texas Youth Commission in 1997 as a math teacher at the Giddings campus, before moving into administration.
Garry Blasig, a math teacher since 2008 at Giddings State School, will be taking over as principal. Blasig, a native of Giddings, attended UT, Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M, where he received his principal’s certification. He has been in education since 1978, teaching and working in administration in several districts in Central Texas, including the Giddings, Alief and Bastrop ISDs.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
You notice first the Stetson, then the colorful suit, the bow tie and smooth dress shoes. The man so carefully attired is standing in military erectness at the center of a cluster of young people.
The teens are fidgety, earnest, eager. They slump around him in sweats in comical sartorial contrast. He’s paying close attention to what they’re telling him, while nodding at staff who offer a hand or a hello as they pass by.
Giddings State School Superintendent Bill Parks always seems to be in the middle of a swirl of activity. But he’s not caught up in it, so much as he’s grounding it. That cliche, “the calm at the center of the storm,” had him in mind.
He affirms this impression a dozen ways, starting with his answer to “What is the most important quality for a successful correctional officer, or Youth Development Coach, as they’re called at TJJD?”
His rapid reply: “Internal locus of control.”
“If you have that, the things around you, they don’t really knock you off center,” he explained. “You’re able to take them in and absorb them and still be who you are and move forward in a positive direction.”
Inner strength, self-awareness and self-control -- the ability to withstand and analyze events without overreacting to them. These are the qualities that Parks looks for in staff and what he has cultivated in himself since growing up in the turbulent 1960s.
Self-regulation along with his personal trust in God’s guidance has carried him through many life challenges, including some devastating losses. It has led him to where he is today, a master degreed, highly respected juvenile justice leader, who has served as a superintendent at three facilities since joining TJJD in 2012.
“Wow! Bill Parks? Where do I start? I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working under Mr. Bill Parks for the year we worked together. He’s an amazing person to work with,” said Michelle Watkins, a team leader and dorm supervisor at Gainesville State School, which Parks helmed from October 2018 until March 2021, when he transferred to Giddings.
This is the sort of enthusiastic response you get when you ask Parks’ colleagues about him. They describe a gentle, smart, thoughtful leader whom they feel is truly looking for the best in everyone.
“I believe his secret is his listening skills, intelligence, and commitment to understanding. Beyond that, he is a true team player, truly wants to see everyone succeed, and will do whatever he can to aid in that success,” Watkins said.
Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks witnessed some examples of epic leadership.
In 1955, his great aunt, the civil rights icon Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus, triggering the Bus Boycott of 1955. Other Parks family members joined the movement and Bill’s father, an upholsterer, helped drive people to work during the year-long boycott, which de-segregated the city buses and paved the way for more civil rights actions.
Bill Parks is proud of his great aunt’s legendary place in history. But in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Parks’ family ties presented difficulties, too, in his racially segregated hometown. He remembers moments of great stress, being chased as a young boy by white men in a truck with a rebel flag, being beaten with chains, and another time, huddling at home while the adults planned their defense in the face of a rumored bomb threat from a Ku Klux Klan member.
“I can remember as a child sitting under the table and listening to them talk about the strategy they were going to use if that actually happened. Fortunately, it didn’t, but we had people standing on blocks on guard, waiting . . . shortly after that dad decided to move the family to New Jersey”
Parks excelled in high school in Newark, in academics and several sports. But the move to a large mostly white school in the North was a “culture shock” and some classmates made fun of his Southern drawl.
That’s when he learned to steel himself against outside turmoil and not let others hold him back.
“I had two choices: I could be mean and bitter and stay that way and not progress or I could accept the change and embrace it and make the best of it and I chose to do the latter,” he said.
(Hear Bill Parks’ discuss working with kids (https://youtu.be/aubXSUCVolU) and his early history and life in Alabama in our videos at TJJD's YouTube channel.)
After high school, Parks served eight years in the Air Force, and later worked as a nurse to support his growing family, even as he studied toward his master’s degree in psychology from Auburn University. He taught at the university for nine years and remains a devoted fan of the Tigers.
He worked in juvenile justice in Alabama and then Georgia, serving first as a superintendent and later as head of all treatment facilities in that system, until retiring in 2009. He hadn’t planned a career in juvenile justice but found it to be a perfect fit.
“I never really wanted to work with kids, maybe because of what I’d gone through,” he said. “But when I started working with kids all those experiences that I had really paid off, because now I could connect with the kids. I was able to connect with kids who were incarcerated very easily and that made my career more rewarding.”
A personal tragedy struck in 2010 when his beloved wife of 32 years, Linda, lost a sudden battle with brain cancer.
He fell into a depression. His four grown children tried to help. But they too were grieving. One day, not wanting to even get out of bed, he experienced a divine intervention. He felt God was telling him to get up, that Bill Parks’ work wasn’t done. He went to the computer and saw jobs posted for TJJD. His children were surprised at his decision to move to Texas, but Parks felt called to again serve young people in need.
In Texas, he worked initially at Central Office, but was quickly tapped to be the superintendent at the McLennan County campus, in Mart. He worked at that campus for six years, before being asked to head up Gainesville State School, and then this year, to oversee Giddings State School.
As TJJD’s longest serving superintendent, Parks has improved each campus he’s served, say TJJD executive leaders. “He is a constant professional even in times of crisis,” deftly bringing individuals and teams together for a common purpose, said Director of Secure Facilities Alan Michel.
“Bill’s willingness to take on new challenges makes him an invaluable asset to the agency,” said Thomas Adamski, Director of the Texas Model.
“He always leads by example and has time for youth and staff. In my tenure as a director, I always found Bill out on his campus visiting with staff and youth,” Adamski said. “He was rarely at his desk, rather, he was always where the kids were.”
The words people use to describe Parks, “authentic” and “genuine,” align perfectly with the TJJD’s focus on creating healthy, meaningful relationships with young people.
The Texas Model, which guides interactions at TJJD, maintains that building genuine, caring connections with youth in need is the best way, perhaps the only way, to help them make changes. In this regard, it seems, Bill Parks has landed in just the right place.
“With our young people, they can see right through you and know whether you are who you present yourself to be,” said Robin Motley, a manager at Giddings State School who works closely with Parks. “He is true to his word and it is evident that he cares.”
Authenticity is critically important, she said, because youth at TJJD often come from traumatic backgrounds and have difficulty trusting adults.
Parks also puts in the day-to-day work. Tammy Weatherspoon, a dorm supervisor at Gainesville, recalls how he met with each youth as they arrived and learned the names of everyone on campus.
“He genuinely loves kids, and he feels that they truly are the future. He makes them feel like they matter,” Weatherspoon said.
Could it be that the cowboy hat and that delightful suit are more deliberate than we realized? Is modeling success, another facet of Parks showing that he cares?
Watkins thinks so. “He always dresses for success with things like his cowboy hat. This shows the youth to be the best they can be every day, even if they aren’t feeling their best at the time.”
Being an authentic, caring leader also has proven highly effective with staff.
“Working with the youth can be stressful and it can just beat you down. However, he is able to tell you what areas you need to work on as a professional or leader to improve yourself. The way he does this is calming and insightful,” Motley said.
“He has a great way of making sure he has a relationship with every person he works with or that works for him (in his case), said Weatherspoon, who worked with him at Gainesville. “He has a way of making folks feel like they are an important part of the ‘team’. He shows a great deal of concern and he also shares his personal life stories that would make you comfortable to be around him.”
And that brings us to the second most important quality Parks’ identifies as important for staff working with youth: Showing your vulnerability.
You didn’t see that one coming, did you? It might seem counter-intuitive but revealing yourself to others can bring them closer.
Parks offers this example: You are a coach trying to round up a group of teens for “brush up” in the morning. There’s one (if you’re lucky just one!) who doesn’t want to get out of bed. Instead of getting agitated, you recall to them that you also had trouble getting up some mornings as a teenager. You give them a few more minutes, and you maybe also note that as a teenager, you did get up, as your parents wished and found it kept everyone else happy and on time.
Commiserating with a young person, instead of yelling at them, has kept the exchange on an even keel and shows you care. You have modelled restraint, and as a bonus, there’s less stress on you, Parks explains.
“Don’t be afraid to show people you’re a real person and you feel things too. I don’t mean go around and tell them all of your business, but there’s certain situations you don’t mind sharing with them about yourself,” he said.
“And that makes everyone around you feel a little more connected.”
Photos: Top right, Bill speaks with teens at Giddings State School (he forgot his hat that day); middle left, Bill in the conference room at Giddings State School; middle right, Bill talks with a staffer in the background as kids at the Mart campus eat lunch; lower left, Bill speaks with a youth at Gainesville State School during a family picnic; lower right, Bill talks with students during a break in their English class at Giddings State School.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
They aspire to be barbers, oil field technicians and game wardens. Some want jobs to help them pay their way through college. Some want to begin careers right away and have visions of owning a landscaping or auto repair business.
But before these dreams can come to pass, they must learn the nitty gritty details of applying for a job, navigating an interview, composing a resume and portraying themselves on LinkedIn.
For those aspiring to college, there’s also the task of filling out the formidable Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).
There’s a lot to grasp, and so, once a week, several young men at TJJD’s Ayres Halfway House in San Antonio sit down with volunteers and staff who advise them, polish their job applications and talk about how to talk in interviews.
The work begins almost as soon as a TJJD youth arrives at the halfway house, where staffers are always on the look out for ways to help the young men get ready for the transition back home.
“We have the end in mind from the beginning,” said Maryann Gooley, TJJD Workforce Development Specialist V, who assists kids at Ayres and youth on TJJD parole across the Southern portion of the state, from El Paso and Midland to Killeen to Corpus Christi.
Getting the teens ready for work before they leave TJJD is crucial to their long-term success.
“There’s a really a brief window when the kids get out of whatever facility they’re in and they get home to their guardians,” Gooley said. “It’s about two weeks. If we don’t get to them (with a work plan) within those first two weeks, we can lose them, because there’re so many distractions out there. There are home issues and self-esteem issues and there may be other issues...”
In addition to Gooley, the Ayres workforce team includes the Health and Human Services Specialist, Community & Family Relations Coordinator Patty Garza and college interns who are studying to become social workers. The team meets virtually every week and gets help from experts at Alamo Workforce Solutions and the Texas Workforce Commission. While helping youth with work skills has always been a focus of TJJD halfway houses, this formalized workforce group, which began weekly meetings in August, represents a recent redoubling of effort.
The colleges interns this semester are Desmond Jackson, who’s working on a master’s in social work at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Kinsey Andecover, who’s finishing up a master’s in social work at Texas State University in San Marcos. They are an integral part of the team, and provide continuity for the youth, especially when staff are pulled away for other duties, said Garza, who oversees the intern program at Ayres.
Gooley, Jackson and Andecover say they enjoy helping the youth chart a course that will carry them into adulthood.
“Typically, I like to do a meet-and-greet and tell them about myself and get them to open up. Then we catalog hard and soft skills,” Jackson said.
After inventorying their interests and skills, he and Andecover survey places where the young men can finish school credits if needed, teach them how LinkedIn and other online employment services work, hone resumes and explore job openings.
It’s exciting but detailed work that can get quite granular. They might, say, help a youth create a new more professional email address – one that no longer says “heybaby1234” or “hotmess,” Gooley says with a chuckle.
They talk about how to address an employer and work through workplace disagreements and talk on the telephone in a professional way.
Andecover shows the boys how to ferret out job openings by first Googling workplaces within a five-to-seven mile radius of their home communities.
Guided by staff the college interns work one-on-one with the youth. They meet virtually and in person as pandemic protocols have allowed. They pour energy into this effort, because, like Gooley, they know that easing the transition home lays the foundation for success. If a youth can quickly begin contributing to their family’s household budget or can, if needed, support themself they will feel confident and secure, they said.
The money and the emotional lift are both important and help a youth to move forward and not revert to problematic behaviors, Andecover said.
“One of our main objectives is to at least set them up with some sort of interview or something, so when they get released into the community, it’s a fresh start,” Jackson said.
Recently, the team helped a young man secure a job at Wendy’s, where he interviewed the day after getting home.
That was a big win, because he didn’t have to miss a beat, Jackson said. “He was like, ‘this is awesome!’ and he thanked me, and I reminded him that he did the work.”
Restaurants and lawn services provide good entry level jobs for the youth. But many places won’t accept kids with a juvenile justice background. Recently, Andecover polled about 10 automotive service places with private owners who set their own employment policies. About half said they would consider a former TJJD youth, but half told her they would not.
The issue of a youth’s background will come up for determinant sentenced offenders, because they have to answer “yes” when asked on an application if they’ve been convicted of a felony.
But even TJJD youth who were committed with “non-determinant” sentences (the majority) and can honestly say they’ve not been “convicted” of a crime, must prepare to address their background, Gooley said. Their past may simply be evident, because of their recent address at a halfway house, their patchy work and school history, the need for parole checks or their own decision to disclose it. And so, the workforce team counsels all youth on how to address their history with employers.
Gooley teaches them to tell their story using what she calls a “sandwich” or “hamburger” technique. The first part, the bun base, is their history and precursor events, including family and financial hardships that contributed to their getting into trouble. Next, they get to the center of the matter: their offense. They don’t have to give all the details, but they should tell it straight, take responsibility and express their honest regret, Gooley counsels.
Then they move on to explain how they’ve changed and evolved.
“They talk about their personal growth and things they’ve achieved and how they’ve addressed those barriers they’ve had,” Gooley said “They might say they’ve learned to say ‘no’ to getting involved with negative activities.”
During this third part, youth might also explain how TJJD’s Texas Model and Trust-Based Relational Intervention programs have helped them understand how to regulate their emotions, enabling them to resist negative influences, she said. They can point to how they’ve learned to recognize and overcome “thinking errors” that may have made them susceptible to peer pressure.
Knowing that the youth have limited options – however temporary -- is one of the most agonizing aspects of their volunteer work, said Jackson, who plans to work at Ayres through next spring. Andecover will finish in December when she completes her master’s.
These difficult conversations are necessary because some of the youth start the workforce program thinking they’ll work at certain customer-facing businesses or join the military, only to realize that their immediate past may be a barrier, Andecover said.
“We have a conversation about the limitations, based on what they’ve done in the past,” Desmond said. “Then we talk about turning that negative into a positive.”
On a more positive note, the youth often don’t realize how many legitimate job skills they’ve notched even in their teens.
In brainstorming over their resumes, “that’s when we learn they’ve worked on lawns and on vehicles” or they may have kitchen skills, learned at home or TJJD, Andecover said. Some have helped in family businesses and have capabilities that will translate well to the job market.
As they think about it “they remember that they have a certification they got here (at TJJD) on landscaping,” Desmond said, “and we tell them, ‘That’s important!’.”
Andecover and Jackson also help the young men see how they’ve demonstrated personal qualities employers look for, like industriousness and teamwork, while in school, at TJJD or working on community service projects.
They’re also able to reinforce with the young men that they have a chorus of people cheering them on, from the Ayres workforce team to the representatives from the Texas Workforce Solutions and the YES (Youth Empowerment Services) program that provides health resources to families with special needs.
Andecover and a TJJD parole officer are working this month with yet another resource, Texas CAN Academy, to help a youth get enrolled in classes. “I didn’t realize how many credit recovery places there are. There are so many available and it can make a big difference for the youth,” she said.
Another program that makes a big difference is the federally funded Work Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), available across Texas, which matches kids to jobs for a trial period, said Gooley, who’s worked at TJJD since 2002, the last four years as the workforce expert. Participating employers get federal funding to provide youth with early job experience, at least six weeks. And if they do well, a youth may get hired permanently.
As for those reluctant employers. Sometimes the workforce team can diffuse their concerns and get them to try out a TJJD youth who has shown they’ve grown socially and personally during their commitment, Gooley said. They will point out that a youth may have worked hard to complete a GED, earn community service hours and build job skills while at TJJD.
Gooley has asked prospective employers to remember that teens can change rapidly. “If you make mistake at 13 and now you’re 18,” she said, “how much growth and change has happened in that time?”
Sometimes, even military recruiters will take a second look at a striving TJJD youth, she said. It depends on the circumstances. If a youth has shown personal growth and has computer skills, that may open a door, she said.
“We’re trying to diminish their barriers (to employment) and diminish their (the youth’s) frustration and help them get hopeful,” Gooley said, “because I see a lot of despair and low self-esteem among our youth and that has fed into the situation they’re at.”
Before the young men depart Ayres House, whether or not they’ve worked with the student mentors, the workforce team sends them home with a “Community Connections” handout.
This document, tailored just for them, lists resources in their home community such as food pantries, places to visit and community events where they might connect with others in positive ways. The college interns collect this information, making this last bit of guidance possible, said Garza.
“It is a huge benefit for our youth to have this assistance preparing for the community re-entry,” she said. “Youth often leave the halfway house nervous, but excited to get back in the communities and start a new life. Sadly, barriers present themselves quickly. They are able to overcome these if they have tangible items in place such as a resume and connection with workforce programming in their community, which we link them to as part of these sessions.”
(Photos: Youth participate in online sessions with members of the Ayres House workforce team and other experts in the field.)
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
At TJJD, you probably know General Counsel Christian von Wupperfeld as the attentive leader of the legal department and top advisor to the agency’s executives and oversight board.
But von Wupperfeld has another passion that commands his off-duty time. As a US Army and National Guard veteran, he belongs to Team Red White & Blue, an organization that promotes fitness and cameraderie for veterans and any civilians who want to join and support them. Members come from all walks of life and are united in their goal of enriching veterans' lives.
This summer he signed up for a Team RWB challenge to run a virtual obstacle course of an ultra-marathon into and across a portion of the Grand Canyon.
The expedition, one of several adventures offered by Team RWB, “just resonated with me because I like to run. I think I’ve run 22 or 23 marathons,” von Wupperfeld said. “I joke that I do it because I like to eat Tex Mex.”
If you’ve ever been on a fun run, put that image aside right now. The RWB Grand Canyon foray may have been fun under a broad interpretation of that word. But it was foremost a serious, cliffside, physically grueling and heart-pounding undertaking. Too, it was the stuff of sweet memories and personal bests set amid exquisite vistas to which the postcards fail to do justice.
von Wupperfeld’s marathoner team ran, hiked and climbed 33-miles in just one day on Sept. 18, traveling from the rim of the mile-deep canyon to the floor, across several miles to certain landmarks and back out of the canyon that same evening. They covered those miles and 6,266 vertical feet in just 16 hours.
This pre-dawn to dusk marathon over some of the toughest terrain in the lower 48 didn’t just happen. The 15 participants, men and women in their 30s through 60s, most of them veterans, had trained for 10 weeks starting in July. They hiked on rough terrain, worked out to build strength and ran with 30-pound packs and up inclines to prepare for the extreme altitude shifts they’d encounter at the canyon. They met online to support each other.
von Wupperfeld, who retired from military duty in 2018 after 35 years of active and reserve service, looked forward all summer to the culminating run in the Grand Canyon. The team aspect, the personal challenge and the rigor all appealed to him. The start time of 4 a.m. was a trifle to a career Infantryman who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lure of a new course, a huge draw to a longtime marathoner.
“Running is my meditation time. If I’m having a hard time, it helps me think through it. It’s really hard to be upset about something when you’re out for a run,” said von Wupperfeld, who lives in the Austin area.
Running also serves as a metaphor for life in general, he said. “You’ve got to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
That’s a philosophy for daily living that might serve TJJD youth, or anyone quite well, and it came to mind immediately for von Wupperfeld when he felt something was not quite right with his right foot as he descended the steep, dark trail into the canyon.
“By about Mile Four my right foot was really starting to bother me, but it was one of those things,” von Wupperfeld said. He told himself, “I have to keep going,”and resolved to stay the course – running several miles to the Colorado River, then more miles to reach two landmarks, Phantom Ranch and Ribbon Falls.
Getting to the falls proved motivating (check out that photo) because he knew this was a rare chance to experience a natural feature few people get to see.
Others on the trip also were feeling the challenge and at times, team members reminded each other to, as Dory says in Finding Nemo, “keep swimming,” Von Wupperfeld recalled.
“A thing I like about marathons, there will always be some adversity, but if you just ‘keep swimming’ you will get to the end,” he said.
“We all face adversity and that includes the kids in our care. By having experiences like this, particularly the ones we share with other people, when challenges arise, we will have people we can reach out to for help,’ he said.
Experiences that challenge us “build resiliency and I think that’s a big part of what we’re doing at TJJD.”
Indeed, the return trip from Ribbon Falls back to the trailhead brought some additional adversity. It rained and turned chilly. Team RWB was tired and some were shivering.
The Park Service understands. They place signs on the trails to remind adventurers that “going in is optional” but “coming out is mandatory.” It cautions adventurers, dozens of whom need Park Service assistance to get out, not to overestimate their skills or stamina.
Team RWB, though, had both skills and stamina. And at this juncture, von Wupperfeld, days from his 57th birthday and hours from a hot shower, knew he must and would push ahead for the big climb back up.
“It was my choice to do that happily or in a disgruntled fashion,” he said. “I think it’s one of the benefits of age that I know if I do it grumpily, it’s going to be exponentially worse. So, let’s just smile and move forward. I smiled, and moved forward and it was fine...and I had a great time.”
(Photos: Top right, von Wupperfeld on the trail in the canyon; center left, a map illustrating the hazards of descending the canyon; lower left, von Wupperfeld at Rainbow Falls; lower right, von Wupperfeld's photo of the Grand Canyon near sunset.)